What to expect from Africa's champions Al Ahly at FIFA Club World Cup

Al Ahly contest their opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup on Thursday, when they meet Qatari champions Al Duhail for the right to progress to the semifinals.

Ahead of Africa's entrance into the annual pan-continental competition -- pushed back from December due to the coronavirus pandemic -- ESPN outlines all you need to know to assess the chances of the continent's representatives.

What is the FIFA Club World Cup?

The Club World Cup is an annual competition pitting the continental champions against one another in a knockout competition.

Each of FIFA's six continental champions qualify for the tournament, as well as the reigning domestic champions of the competition hosts -- in this instance, Qatar's Al Duhail.

Al Duhail advanced to the second round after being awarded a 3-0 victory over Oceania's nominees, Auckland City, who withdrew due to New Zealand's quarantine measures.

They will now meet Al Ahly at the Education City Stadium, with the victors set to face UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich in the semifinals.

In the other half of the draw, Copa Libertadores holders Palmeiras will meet either Tigres UANL of Mexico or Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai in the other semi.

Should Al Ahly fall against Duhail, they will meet the losers of the Tigres-Ulsan bout in a fifth-placed playoff.

Why are Al Ahly representing Africa?

The Egyptian giants are Africa's representatives at the 17th edition of the tournament after qualifying as the reigning CAF Champions League winners.

The Red Devils won their record-extending ninth title with victory over eternal rivals SC Zamalek at the Cairo International Stadium, in a match billed as the biggest in the history of African football.

Beyond their domestic rivalry, the two clubs are the two most successful teams in continental competition, and attacking midfielder Mohamed Magdy, known as Afsha, duly wrote his name in the history books when he secured a unforgettable victory in late November with a thumping winner six minutes from time.

The success was Al Ahly's first CAF Champions League triumph since 2013.

What to expect from Al Ahly?

The Red Devils are enjoying an excellent run of form under Pitso Mosimane, and they head into the tournament having gone more than 30 games unbeaten in all competitions.

They last lost a match when they were defeated 3-1 by Zamalek in August -- before Mosimane arrived at the club -- and they sit second in the Egyptian Premier League, two points off their neighbours having played one game fewer.

This team has also revived its winning mentality under Mosimane, completing a treble last year with triumphs in the Egyptian top flight and cup to complement the Champions League success.

The 56-year-old manager -- the first black sub-Saharan African coach in Al Ahly's 114-year history -- has experience of the Club World Cup already, having competed in the tournament with Mamelodi Sundowns back in 2016.

On that occasion, the Brazilians were defeated by two Asian teams -- Kashima Antlers and Hyundai Motors -- and Mosimane will be expected to oversee a more successful campaign this time around.

The South African coach, a serial winner in his homeland, has got Al Ahly playing effectively in a 4-2-3-1 formation packed with international quality and talented operators.

Egypt international Mohamed El-Shenawy will likely start behind a back four containing Tunisia international Ali Maaloul, Ayman Ashraf, Badr Banoun and Mohamed Hany, although the last of this quartet has been struggling with injury recently.

Banoun, a recent arrival from Raja Casablanca, is a magnificent recruit; he's comfortably good enough to play in Europe, and could be considered the outstanding centre-back playing on the African continent today.

Ahead of them, Aliou Dieng, Hamdi Fathy, Amr Soyela and Akram Tawfik are the options for the midfield two, with CAF Champions League final matchwinner Afsha ahead of them as the leading playmaker.

Hussein El-Shahat (right) and Mahmoud Kahraba (left) will occupy the wide areas, flanking international forward Marwan Mohsen.

New boy Walter Bwalya of Zambia and Nigeria's Junior Ajayi have joined the travelling party, although there's no place for veteran left-sider Walid Soliman -- nicknamed the Egyptian Messi in his youth -- who is absent with injury.

How will Africa's representatives fare in Qatar?

Al Ahly are surely strong enough -- and have the momentum -- to eclipse Al Duhail in their opening fixture, despite the presence of Medhi Benatia and Michael Olunga for the Qatari champions.

Certainly, international winger Kahraba has outlined Al Ahly's heady aspirations ahead of the competition.

"Every player has his own ambitions, but the most important thing is to play well and help the team," Kahraba told FIFA.com. "My desire is to reach the final and win the Club World Cup with my team. We tell our fans that our goal is to win the tournament, not play one or two games and return home."

Mosimane, meanwhile, has his eyes on the semifinal meeting with Bayern, but he is adamant that Al Ahly cannot underestimate their opening opponents.

"They have good defenders like Moroccan Benatia, who once played for Juventus, and some sharp Brazilian forwards," Mosimane said. "A lot of our supporters are already talking about Bayern and their stars, but we can play them only if we get past Duhail, who are just as ambitious as us.

"I told my players that every Egyptian will be supporting us because we are here to represent all of them. We are also in Qatar to wave the African flag and I have received best wishes from many South Africans."

What's Africa's track record at the Club World Cup?

Africa's sides have struggled to impress during the 17-year history of the Club World Cup as they have won just 11 of the 42 matches they've played in the competition, registering a collective win rate of 26.1 percent.

Africa has never produced a champion, the tournament always won by teams from either Europe or South America.

Twice, the continent has produced a finalist -- Tout Puissant Mazembe in 2010 and Raja Casablanca in 2013 -- but they were beaten by Internazionale and Bayern Munich respectively.

Considering how often they meet each other in the opening rounds, and the regularity with which the tournament has been hosted in AFC or CAF territories, African and Asian sides have met each other 17 times in the competition. African teams have won just two of those matches -- Al Ahly against Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2012, and Esperance against Al Sadd in 2019.

Al Ahly are Africa's most regular representatives in the tournament -- unsurprising considering their standing as the continent's most successful side -- and their appearance in Qatar will be their sixth attempt on the crown. They will be desperate not to replicate their 5-1 mauling by Mexico's Monterrey in the fifth-placed playoff in 2013, which remains Africa's biggest defeat in the competition.

The classic match

The TP Mazembe team of a decade ago was something special, claiming back-to-back CAF Champions League crowns as well as the CAF Super Cup in 2010 and 2011.

They also registered one of Africa's finest results in the Club World Cup, as they defeated Copa Libertadores winners Internacional 2-0 in an Abu Dhabi semifinal with goals from Patou Kabangu and Dioko Kaluyituka.

That marked the first time a team from outside UEFA or CONMEBOL had reached the final of the competition, even though Mazembe were ultimately outclassed in their once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Samuel Eto'o's UEFA Champions League holders Internazionale.

Can Al Ahly eclipse -- or even surpass -- Mazembe's achievement this time around?