Al-Ahram Weekly Online
16 - 22 May 2002
Issue No.586
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Do-or-die clashes becoming common

Must-win matches are now plentiful for the leaders of the tightest football league race in years, writes Alaa Shahine


Ghazl Al-Suez got Ismaili all tangled up

photo: Medhat Abdel-Meguid

Tonight's key match-up between Cairo soccer powerhouses Ahli and Zamalek is one more in what is becoming a string of matches they, plus Ismaili, can ill-afford to lose -- the consequence of a three-way race for the crown which looks like going down to the wire.

After 21 rounds, Manuel Jose's Ahli on Saturday found themselves on an equal footing with leaders Ismaili, the first time since the season began that Ahli has been in first place, albeit sharing the lead on points and, on paper, second because of goal difference.

Ahli's jump came after a close 2-1 win over Goldi and after Ismaili stumbled to a 1-1 road tie against Ghazl Al-Suez.

The victory and the draw left Ahli and Ismaili with 53 points, while defending champions Zamalek are four points behind, closing in after a tough 2-1 road victory over Ittihad in Alexandria.

Ahli's prolific goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadari, said the team had forgotten all about Goldi. "It's all behind us now because we have a titanic clash with Zamalek and we have to be focused," El- Hadari said.

El-Hadari has been stellar throughout the season and helped Ahli maintain the second stingiest defence after Ismaili, with only nine goals scored against them.

Ahli, who lost the title last season to Zamalek after a seven-year lock over the championship, face an uphill task if they want to reclaim the title. Four days after playing Zamalek, the Red Devils host Ismaili in what has become several do-or-die encounters.

"We must win both games if we are serious about taking the title," Ahli's Portuguese coach Manuel Jose said.

Under Jose, who took over in July, Ahli won the African Champions League for the first time since 1987, then the African Super Cup for the first time in their history. But the former Benfica and Sporting Lisbon boss could be axed should he fail to bring the cherished league crown back to the club's headquarters in Gezira.

Jose lost his first battle against Zamalek in the first leg, when the defending champions took home a deserved 2-1 victory. The tactics employed then by Jose were rigourously questioned in the press.

This time around, however, Ahli comes to the game with a more or less permanent line-up which helped them get by Goldi. Ahli played by far their best soccer this season despite the fact that all three goals were converted from the spot, in addition to a fourth penalty which was missed.

They took the lead only one minute into the kick-off when a penalty was converted by Angolan import Gilberto. The visitors' Nabil Abu Zeid responded in kind in the 25th minute before Khaled Bibo sealed Goldi's fate with another penalty kick in the 70th minute, 10 minutes after Gilberto had his spot kick saved.

Superb goalkeeping by international Nader El- Sayed, who is on loan from Belgian side Clube Bruges, kept the game close. Apart from saving Gilberto's second penalty, he denied several close efforts by Ahmed Belal, Bibo and Walid Salaheddin.

Twice brought down in the area, Salaheddin was the mastermind behind the victory and will be one of Jose's weapons against Zamalek. In the last few matches for Ahli in both the league and the African Champions league, Salaheddin has developed into a super-sub, being called up from the bench in the second half to change things around.

Zamalek, on the other hand, will bring into today's game little of the confidence they enjoyed in the first leg, indeed in the first half of the season. The defending champions lost their first place slot in the 16th round following a humiliating 4-3 home defeat against Ismaili, followed by a draw with bottom of the table Sohag 3-3 and a loss to the Arab Contractors 2-1.

They rebounded with a gutsy 2-1 road victory over Ittihad last week. Following a drab first half from both sides, Zamalek took the lead five minutes after the break through top marksman Hossam Hassan, who made no mistake in converting a penalty kick to increase his goal tally this season to a league-leading 17.

The hosts, however, levelled three minutes later before substitute Walid Abdel-Latif headed home the winner in the 36th minute.

The victory gave Zamalek's German coach Otto Pfister some cheer before facing Ahli. "We still have big hopes of defending our title and we have to defeat Ahli," he said.

Since taking over three years ago, Pfister has not lost to Ahli, guiding Zamalek to three victories against them; two games ended in draws.

Ahli and Zamalek games have been Egypt's most anticipated clashes since the league championship kicked off in 1948. It was in October that year that the two clashed for the first time, with Zamalek going ahead through Said Rustum and Abdel-Karim Saqr before Ahli pulled two goals back by Ahmed Mekawi and Saad Osman.

Player magician Hussein Hegazi and a diplomatic row over Palestine made the match-up a marque event.

Hegazi, a member of the Egyptian team that took fourth place in 1928 Olympics in Rome, was one of Egypt's first football sensations. Staring his career with Ahli (known then as the High School Students Club), Hegazi was the talk of the town with his amazing abilities in the game that was introduced to Egyptians by British occupiers the previous century.

Hegazi's talents were one reason for Ahli's huge number of supporters. But when he moved to Zamalek (then Mukhtalat), in the 1920s, many of Hegazi's supporters switched allegiance, backing Zamalek instead.

It was not until 1944 that the roots of the rivalry had taken hold. That year, Ahli travelled to Palestine for a friendly despite opposition from Egyptian officials who suspended the team's players upon their return to Cairo. The suspension lasted until the final match of the cup which pitted Ahli against Zamalek. Ahli's rust showed and they were drubbed 6-0, the most lopsided score in the famed derby.

Ahli and Zamalek have met 88 times in the league, with Ahli winning 29 of the matches. Thirty-eight games ended in a draw. Ahli netted 99 goals as opposed to Zamalek's 78.

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