Al Ahly, the team to beat in the African Champions League

Such has been the dominance of North African teams in Africa over the past quarter of a century that only eight of the 27 editions of the CAF Champions League since its inception have failed to produce a winner, and only two finals have been contested without the presence of a North African side.

In the second edition back in 1998, Ghana's ASEC Mimosas defeated Zimbabwe's Dynamos FC 4-2 on aggregate (0-0 and 4-2 in front of 50,000 fans in Abidjan). 

Two years later, Ghana's Heart of Oaks overturned a 2-1 deficit in the return leg against Esperance de Tunis to win 3-1 with two goals from Kuffour. Since then, only Nigeria's Enyimba twice (in 2003 and 2004), the DR Congo's TP Mazembe three times (2009 against Heartland of Nigeria, 2010, and 2015), and South Africa's Mamelody Sundowns in 2016 have broken the 'northern stranglehold'. 

Far away from the Saudi petrodollars that have given the Asian Champions League a major boost with names like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and light-years away from the mighty UEFA Champions League, the African Champions League kicks off this Friday with Egypt's Al Ahly as favorites. 

The Egyptian team is the reigning champion, having won three titles and finished runner-up in the last four editions. Led by Swiss coach Marcel Koller, who has 56 international appearances as a player with Switzeland, the 'Red Devils' defeated Morocco's Wydad AC in a two-legged final, winning 2-1 victory in Cairo in front of a crowd of nearly 60,000 fans with thanks to goals from South African Percy Tau and Egyptian Kahraba. The return leg ended in a 1-1 draw on Moroccan soil, with defender Abdelmonem scoring the decisive goal. 

Al Ahly is the reigning African champion. © Getty Images
Al Ahly is the reigning African champion. © Getty Images

Al Ahly had previously beaten Zamalek 2-1 in an all-Egyptian final in 2019-20, triumphed 3-0 over South Africa's Kaizer Chiefs the following year and lost 2-0 to Wydad AC 2-0 in the 2021-22 edition. 

With three titles in the last four editions of the Champions League, the Egyptians have now lifted 11 trophies in total, compared to six for their compatriots Zamalek and for Mazembe. Esperance de Tunis follows with four, while Wydad Casablanca, Raja Casablanca, and Cameroon's Canon Yaoundé have three titles each, with the latter two having the legendary goalkeeper Tommy N'Kono. 

Al Ahly have regained the Egyptian League title they lost to Zamalek in the 2021-22 season. They will represent Africa at the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup, where they will meet on 15 December the winner of the first leg between Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad and Australia's Auckland City. 

The 16 teams in the African Champions League, which is sponsored by TotalEnergies, have been divided into four groups following the two previous qualifying rounds. Al Ahly is in Group D alongside Ghana's Medeama, Algeria's CR Belouizdad, and Tanzania's Young Africans. The latter two will play each other in Algiers and on Saturday, Al Ahly will face Medeama at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo, with Ghana's internationals Sowah, Hamidu, and Abdulai just returned from international duty. The champions will be led by South African Tau and Egyptian international goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy, as well as its star signing, French striker Anthony Modeste, formerly of Borussia Dortmund. 

Coach Marcel Koller won the last CAF Champions with Al Ahly. © Getty Images
Coach Marcel Koller won the last CAF Champions with Al Ahly. © Getty Images

The toughest group is undoubtedly Group A, which includes three-time champions Mazembe, winner seven years ago Mamelody Sundowns, the powerful Egyptian runner-up Pyramids and lesser-known FC Nouadhibou of Mauritania. The first two games are scheduled for Friday: Mamelodi against Nouadhibou and Pyramids against Mazembe. 

Morocco's Wydad AC, the current runner-up, will be the team to beat in Group B and will make its debut against Botswana's Jwaneng Galaxy in Marrakech on Saturday. Meanwhile, Tanzania's Simba will host Ghana's Mimosas in Dar es Salaam.

Finally, in Group C, four-time champion Espérance de Tunis will host Étoile du Sahel on Saturday in the hottest match of the opening round as both teams are from the same country. At the same time, Angola's Petro de Luanda host Sudan's Al Hilal.