Yet, despite all the odds, Al Ahly have proved they still have the muscle to go toe-to-toe with any club in Africa. An opening group stage fixture win over TP Mazembe, one of the fittest teams on the continent, proved they still had quality. Although it was only a 2-1 win clinched in injury time, the score was misleading in terms of the general direction of play: Al Ahly comprehensively outplayed TP for much of the game. A narrow 1-0 win over bitter rivals Zamalek followed, and then a 4-1 thumping of Berekum Chelsea – impressively executed with three of their players on Olympic duty with Egypt. Heading into the fifth round of group matches, Al Ahly were 3 points ahead of Mazembe, but a 2-0 defeat in Lubumbashi seemed to seal their fate as runners up, Mazembe leapfrogging them to the top of group B via the head-to-head record. Dramatically, another twist was to come as Mazembe lost in their last group fixture to Berekum Chelsea. An Al Ahly draw with rivals Zamalek confirmed the Egyptian giants as the group winners, booking an ‘easier’ semi-final date with unfancied Nigerians Sunshine Stars rather than defending champions Esperance.
The quality, then, still remains and claims of Al Ahly’s demise have been vastly exaggerated. Ahmed Fathy, Sayed Moawad, Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Aboutrika, who has notched 6 goals in this year’s competition, have rolled back the years. However, the latter has been suspended by the club after refusing to play in the Egyptian Super Cup against Enppi earlier this month. His decision not to play in the game was in solidarity with Al Ahly fans demands for football in Egypt to undergo a major overhaul following the Port Said atrocity.
Coach Hossam Al Badry’s deploys a flexible 4-2-3-1 system and his side are still imbued with the philosophy that made the Al Ahly and Egypt NT sides of yesteryear moisten the eyes. Spatial awareness, continual movement and collective coherency are still the ubiquitous idiosyncrasies, though the diminishing in the quality of the personnel means the team lack the collective grandiose – goalkeeper Sherif Ekramy is jittery and doesn’t emit confidence to those in front of him, whilst Wael Gomaa, arguably the best African centre-back of the last decade, is at the stage where he needs to turbo charge his zimmerframe before games due to geriatrics.
The two Hossams – Ashour and Ghaly – are reliable if a bit too like-for-like to leave opposition midfielders quaking in their boots. Still, considering the state of the defence, extra solidity may not be a bad thing. Ghaly is the more creative of the two and is usually the chief starter of the counter-attacks, but the more creative Abdallah Said usually starts next to Ashour.
The three attacking players – it was mostly Barakat, Aboutrika and Soliman during the group stages – behind the striker are the key as they drop deep to pick the ball up, giving their markers the nauseating dilemma of whether to pick them up or not. Due to their superb technique and understanding, they are also capable of moving the ball computer-quick in attacking moves with devastating synchronisation. The suspension of Aboutrika blurs the efficiency which they’ll be able to move the ball, but Gedo is more than an able replacement. Emad Moteab usually leads the line, but he is suffering from kidney tones and the striker, for the first leg at least, is likely to be promising Ivorian Oussou Konan.
The effervescent Walid Soliman, who remains a doubt for the first leg, has the responsibility to conjure the spectacular after Aboutrika’s ban. The intrepid left-winger delivered arguably the best individual performances in this season’s CL in Al Ahly’s 4-1 win over Berekum Chelsea, two stunning goals added substance in a performance that was full of style. Indeed, you could have been excused for thinking it was El Guy Fawkes Night in Cairo – it was a performance full of fireworks.
One to watch
With perennial talisman Aboutrika banned and experienced striker Emad Moteab out ,the onus is on Gedo to provide the goals in a side that has struggled for goals. The 2010 Cup of Nations top scorer will most likely start from the wide left but is lively and experienced enough for his shoulders not to surrender under the pressure of filling big shoes.
The Red Devils face dogged opposition in Sunshine Stars, but their know-how at this level and quality should see them through. Can they go all the way? It’s possible, but their eye-wincingly poor away record – only 3 wins in 28 CL away games since 2008 – remains a problem, and, worse still, they may have just shot themselves in the foot by banning Aboutrika.