- Al Ahly face fierce rivals Zamalek in Friday’s CAF Champions League final
- The trophy has agonisingly eluded Junior Ajayi
- He discusses his desire to help Ahly conquer
The CAF Champions League 2020 final will mark a special occasion for Al Ahly’s Nigerian star Junior Ajayi, who is hoping to finally claim the coveted African title which has twice eluded him.
In 2017, Al Ahly lost to Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca 2-1 on aggregate in the decider, before injury prevented the Nigerian from taking part in the same fixture in 2018, which the Red Devils lost to Tunisia’s Esperance 4-3 on aggregate. The 24-year-old forward laments his side’s Champions League ambitions twice being thwarted in the final game.
“It was a bad time for us because coming up just short in consecutive editions isn’t good,” he said. “We’d played very well throughout both of those campaigns but didn’t perform in either final, which cost us the title.”
Having joined Al Ahly from Tunisia’s CS Sfaxien in the summer of 2016, Ajayi quickly made his mark at the Cairo-based club. He helped his side win the domestic league in his first season before scoring nine goals in his second year as they retained the title. Moreover, he scored three times en route to the Champions League final in 2017.
However, the Nigerian suffered a major blow in July 2018, when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Botswana’s Township Rollers in the fourth round of that year’s Champions League group stage. Ajayi, who won a bronze medal with the Super Eagles at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, described this injury as one of his worst moments.
“Having an injury that kept me out of the game for nearly six months was one of the most frustrating moments of my career.” he said.
Did you know?
- Ajayi started out as a midfielder, then became a forward and now mostly plays on the wing.
- With Al Ahly, he has won four consecutive league titles and lifted the Egyptian Super Cup twice.
- He scored a brace against Zamalek in last year’s Super Cup triumph.
- So far this season, he has made 42 appearances for his club in all competitions, scoring 11 goals.
Ajayi’s tale is a testament to the old adage that ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. After recovering from his six-month layoff, he celebrated another Egyptian league title before helping the Red Devils reach their third Champions League final in the last four years.
“We’re very happy we won the league, which gives us confidence ahead of the coming games,” he said. “We’re only focused on the continental title and will do our best to claim it.”
Having already faced the club’s arch-rivals in big games, Ajayi knows how difficult an opponent Zamalek will be and exactly what will await them at Cairo International Stadium on Friday.
“I expect a good game from both sides,” he said. “The two teams know each other very well, and Zamalek are among the toughest teams I’ve faced. I’ve lost two finals against them and it wasn’t a good feeling.”
Al Ahly and their fans will be hoping Ajayi can replicate his heroics against Zamalek from last year, when he scored twice against them in the Egyptian Super Cup. Were that to happen, no-one would be happier than the player himself.
“I love to play in big games because it highlights your capabilities as a player,” Ajayi said. “I’ve been lucky in scoring against big teams and I feel very happy when I do this.
“I want to score more goals and hope to win the Champions League, because it’s the only title I still haven’t managed. I hope we can do it because our fans love this tournament so much.”
If Ajayi succeeds in winning the continental title and participating in the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2020™, it will surely be his crowning achievement with the Cairo giants.