Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Sports
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sweeter than usual

Ahli captured their fifth consecutive Egyptian Premier League title after edging Ismaili in a one-game playoff. Ahmed Morsy reports on the pulsating finale

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Multitudes of Ahli fans couldn't get enough of their favourite players, including Shadi Mohamed and Ramzi Saleh

A trademark Flavio header gave Ahli a 1-0 playoff victory over Ismaili, leading the storied club to a fifth successive Egyptian Premier League title and the 34th league crown in their illustrious history.

Ahli and Ismaili had finished with 63 points after the 30-game schedule and needed to play a one-game play-off to decide the winner. Goal average is not the decider in the Egyptian league.

In Sunday's climatic decider in Alexandria, the Angolan's early goal was enough to hand his coach Manuel Jose his own 19th title in his era with Ahli before he leaves the club at the end of this month after a remarkable six years at the helm.

It was the third playoff match between Ahli and Ismaili to decide the Egyptian league winner. In the first, in the 1991 season, Ismaili won the decider game 2-0. In the second Ahli upended Ismaili 4-3 in the 1994 season decider.

Three-time Egyptian champions Ismaili were denied the chance to win their first league title since 2002.

Flavio Amado needed only five minutes to fire Ahli in front after once again making the most of his aerial prowess when he rose above his marker Moatassem Salem to head his countryman Gilberto's free-kick from the left past Ismaili keeper Mohamed Sobhi.

Versatile midfielder Ahmed Fathi could have doubled Ahli's advantage in the eighth minute when he latched onto a through pass from Mohamed Abu Treika to go clear on goal but a last- ditch interception from Dario Khan deflected his shot over the bar.

Ismaili began to find their rhythm afterwards thanks to the tireless work of central defender Sherif Abdel-Fadil, who played as a right winger. Ismaili's skipper Mohamed Hommos was unlucky to see his powerful right-footed shot strike the bar on 25 minutes.

Despite Ismaili's pressure, Ahli still had chances to increase the lead after some neatly-worked counter attacks. On the 30th minute, the in-form Fathi skipped past two defenders and went one- on-one with Mohamed Sobhi, who superbly blocked the Egyptian international's low shot.

Ismaili failed to unlock Ahli's tight defence despite dominating possession. Following the final whistle, Ahli players poured onto the pitch to celebrate winning the prestigious accolade.

The win was a huge morale booster for Ahli who had been shaken after their ouster from the Egypt Cup, then shocked by their early departure from the African Champions League, of which they were the defending champions.

They also had to contend with the sudden announcement that their Portuguese coach Jose was leaving, though it seems the decision helped motivate the players.

Ahli also weathered the poor performances of goalkeeper Amir Abdel Hamid by giving the opportunity to their Palestinian netminder Ramzi Saleh who despite some jittery moments of his own, rose to the occasion in the second half of the season.

Ahli assistant coach Hossam El-Badri dedicated the win to Jose. "Tonight is a great opportunity to thank Jose for everything he did for the club," El-Badri said after the game.

The wily tactician, who will take over the Angolan national side in June, led Ahli to 19 in total.

Ahli superstar Mohamed Abu Treika was taken off in the second half, and El-Badri said that the playmaker's display was affected by the golden chance he missed before the interval. "We felt that Abu Treika lost a bit confidence after failing to convert that first-half opportunity," the former Ahli's defender said.

Young striker Mohamed Talaat, who scored Ahli's third against Gaish in the penultimate game, impressed when he was introduced in place of Flavio Amado eight minutes from time.

"We couldn't bring on Talaat any earlier. Big games like these need experienced players and we have to remember that the hitman is still very young. If Ismaili equalised we could have played extra-time and that's why it was important to save some changes for the game's later stages.

"It was very important to control the game's pace right from the start. We weren't concerned about attacking early on as much as we wanted to impose our style."

Midfielder Mohamed Barakat said that by beating Ismaili, Ahli maintained their status as the country's best club.

"Some media reports referred to us as an ageing team, and now I want to congratulate my ageing team for winning a fifth consecutive title," Barakat jokingly said.

"It's the first time we feel so happy about winning a league. This season was more difficult than any of the previous ones I won with Ahli."

Veteran midfielder Ahmed Hassan said that winning the league is the most important trophy he ever achieved. "This is the first local competition I win in Egypt," Hassan said after the game. "I've always wanted to win the Egyptian League, and I'm delighted I managed to do it with Ahli."

Ismaili assistant coach Ahmed El-Agouz was furious with the referee who adjudged his team's decider against Ahli. El-Agouz was so upset by the referee following the game that he tried to get on the pitch to confront the Spanish judge. "He is the worst referee I've ever seen," El-Agouz said after the game.

"Many of his calls slowed down the game's pace and this affected our players' tempo.

"We are really disappointed that Egypt's FA officials didn't show us enough respect when they brought a mediocre official for a league decider."

Despite the loss, El-Agouz said he was honoured that his players managed to take the league title to the wire.

"We congratulated all our players after the game. They have earned everybody's respect with their displays and results this season.

"We are really proud that we built a strong and young team that can play at the top level for years to come," he added.

Ismaili's Brazilian coach Ricardo said that he would not be making any decisions regarding his future with the club until he convenes with it's president.

Ricardo, who took over Ismaili midway through the season, nearly guided the Dervishes to their fourth league title.

Ismaili board member Mohamed Salah Abu Greisha said Ahli deservedly won. "We have to admit that the best team won today," Abu Greisha said after the decider. "But I also believe that our players produced a very good display, and I'm confident that the future will be bright for our club."

In the midst of the celebrations, Abu Treika said it was time to focus on Egypt's crucial game against Algeria. "Of course I'm more than delighted with the win, but now we need to start preparing for Egypt's World Cup qualifier against Algeria" (on 7 June), Abu Treika said.

The Pharaohs are approaching a tough June, which will start by facing Algeria and end with the country's participation in the FIFA Confederations Cup.

The Egypt star admitted that playing as a second striker behind Flavio Amado was always an uncomfortable position for him. "I play my best football when I'm behind two forwards. But starting as a striker decreases my potential by at least 30 to 40 per cent," the 30-year-old added.

At the bottom of the table, Itasalat, Olympic and Tersana were relegated. Al-Gouna, Mansoura and Military Production are in the limelight first division.

In the midst of the celebrations, Abu Treika said it was time to focus on Egypt's crucial game against Algeria. "Of course I'm more than delighted with the win, but now we need to start preparing for Egypt's World Cup qualifier against Algeria" (on 7 June), Abu Treika said.

The Pharaohs are approaching a tough June, which will start by facing Algeria and end with the country's participation in the FIFA Confederations Cup.

The Egypt star admitted that playing as a second striker behind Flavio Amado was always an uncomfortable position for him. "I play my best football when I'm behind two forwards. But starting as a striker decreases my potential by at least 30 to 40 per cent," the 30-year-old added.

At the bottom of the table, Itasalat, Olympic and Tersana were relegated. Al-Gouna, Mansoura and Military Production are in the limelight first division.

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