Wrong time to lose
Ahli's world record 55-game unbeaten streak came to an end on the world stage. Inas Mazhar
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Saudi Arabian Ittihad midfielder Mohamed Haidar and his teammates celebrate their 1-0 victory against Ahli in Tokyo
A late goal from captain Mohamed Noor was enough to hand Ittihad of Saudi Arabia victory over Egyptian rivals Ahli in the opening game of the FIFA Club World Championship in Tokyo on Sunday.
The loss ended Ahli's 55-game unbeaten run which began in July last year. The record, which incorporated the domestic league and the African Champions League, was recently set after the club had surpassed the 54-game record of Santos of Brazil and Penarol of Uruguay in the 1960s.
But at the National Stadium in Japan the streak came to rest.
In the days leading up to the Arab derby, Ittihad had tried to enlist three Brazilians but the move was defeated by FIFA after an Ahli protest that a deadline for such hirings had been passed.
Though Sunday is a working day in Egypt, the streets of Cairo were unusually empty as if the day was a national holiday. Many students skipped school, appointments and meetings were re-scheduled and offices emptied as fans gathered around TV sets at work, in cafes, hotels and at home to watch the game on a subscription satellite channel.
With Egypt having failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, fans rallied around Ahli for compensation. But the 78th- minute strike brought to an end Ahli's dream of lifting the World Cup. It was also the end of the road for the African team's unbeaten run. The win set the Asian champions Ittihad up with a clash against Brazil's Sao Paulo in the final four that was scheduled for yesterday. The African champions Ahli will face Sydney for fifth and sixth place tomorrow. Sydney lost to Deportivo Saprissa 1-0 on Monday.
On a freezing cold night in Tokyo it was Ahli, playing a 3-4-3 formation, who began the match the brighter. Young striker Emad Metab showed good pace and almost won a penalty with a dangerous burst into the box with just four minutes on the clock. From the resulting corner, Ahmed El-Sayed, standing unmarked six yards out, almost guided the ball towards the corner but missed by inches. A minute later and it was Mohamed Barakat down the right showing a clean pair of heels to the Ittihad defence before being hauled down by Asia's player of the year Hamad Al-Montashari.
The Saudi Arabian side were struggling to find their rhythm and on 13 minutes a poor clearance across the face of goal was picked up by Ahli's third attacker, Mohamed Abou Treika, but he hooked his shot well wide.
A series of niggly fouls upset the Egyptian side's pattern of play and Ittihad grew in stature as the half wore on. Ahli had a glorious chance to open the scoring though in the 34th minute. A well worked corner was flicked on at the near post for Metab eight yards out but the striker could not get enough meat on the shot and Mabrouk Zaid scrambled to his left to parry.
The Asian champions were sparked into action. Four minutes later, Mohamed Kallon burst through the heart of the defence before being upended. The Sierra Leone star picked himself up but struck the kick straight into the hands of Essam El-Hadari.
Kallon, on a year's loan from Monaco, was exerting a greater influence on the match and he sprinted through again five minutes before the break. This time, only the studs of the sliding Islam El-Shater prevented a one-on-one with the keeper.
On the stroke of half-time, the African had another fine chance to break the deadlock. Tcheco delivered the corner and, leaping like a salmon, Kallon planted a textbook header low to the keeper's left. To the striker's amazement, though, El-Hadari managed to stick out a hand and claw the ball away.
With snow falling, Ittihad began the second half much better. On 47 minutes, a fine pass from Noor found Mohamed Haidar unmarked but the midfielder screwed his shot wide. The same combination a minute later ended in the same result.
Down the other end, Barakat fed Mohamed Shawki whose piledriver was struck straight at Zaid. Suiting Anghel Iordanescu's Ittihad, the game was opening up. Tcheco struck the wall with a free kick before Metab blasted over from another set piece.
With 13 minutes left Kallon was put through in the inside left channel but once again he was thwarted by another fine save from El-Hadari. Seconds later, though, Egypt's number one goalkeeper was holding his head in his hands. Coming for a cross from the right, he completely missed his punch and Noor was on hand to gleefully slot the bouncing ball into the empty net to give his team a 1-0 lead after 78 minutes.
Ahli appeared shorn of ideas to get back into the game. With four minutes left, Barakat almost stole in but he failed to control a long pass ending the African club's dreams of glory in the high-profile competition.
At a press conference after the match, the Romanian Iordanescu congratulated his players. He was all smiles as he spoke to reporters. "Congratulations to my players," he said. "To be fair, we didn't play well in the first 45 minutes. I think we were a bit scared of our opponents and maybe gave them too much respect.
"In the second period we tried to build up our game with possession and we created more problems for our opponents. I think we deserved to win in the second half but if they scored in the first half, which they deserved to do, then the score could well have been different.
"We saw three tapes of Ahli and I went to the final of the African Champions League in Cairo and you cannot compare the teams," he said. "It's a different competition, extra stress and a different crowd. You also cannot compare Ittihad to the team that played in the final of the Asian Champions League. But that's football; you have to play under any circumstances."
The Romanian beamed at the prospect of a semi-final clash against Sao Paulo. "We are down five players and we don't have too many options to change if players are tired or injured but hopefully this victory will give us confidence."
Ahli coach, Portuguese Manuel Jose, was visibly disappointed as he spoke after the winning coach. "Congratulations to Ittihad," he said. "Both sides had opportunities to score but they got the goal at the right moment. We had several chances in the first half but after 35 minutes we just didn't play well. We couldn't play our normal style.
The Portuguese admitted that his team lacked aggression and creativity in the game. "In the second half Ittihad pressed much more and we became nervous and failed to move the ball around. Instead we hit long balls which was easy for their tall defenders and midfielders. We lacked aggression and creativity."
One of the main features of Ahli's 55-match unbeaten run has been their devastating use of the wings and the Metab-Barakat-Abou Treika connection. But on a bitterly cold night in Tokyo the trio were frozen out by a determined Ittihad defence.
"Our right and left sides didn't work today. It is what we are known for but they just didn't work," Jose said. "In the midfield we lost control of the match. I tried to balance the side with a substitution and put Barakat on the right but it didn't happen.
"One day we had to lose. It was the wrong moment but that's life and we have to accept defeat. They deserved to win on their second half performance. Now we have to win the next match and we'll look to see who we'll face. As far as I know, we haven't lost two matches in a row in the past two years so I hope we can win."