Have it both ways
Zamalek lost and Ahli won in their African Champions League Group B opener, reports Ahmed Morsy
Egypt's archrivals Ahli and Zamalek commenced their African Champions League group-stage campaign this week. Six-time African Champions Ahli snatched a last-gasp Champions League home win over TP Mazembe to claim a 2-1 victory behind closed doors in the Cairo military stadium Sunday. Meanwhile, five-time African champions Zamalek, who are eyeing their first Champions League crown since 2002, suffered a 3-2 away defeat at the hands of Ghana's Berekum Chelsea in their opening Group B game Saturday.
Similar to the performance of the Egyptian national team, who stunningly failed to qualify for the African Nations Cup last month, Zamalek looked a pale shadow of their former self. Despite the win, Ahli looked the same, owing to the lack of match fitness.
Zamalek's assistant coach Ismail Yousif claimed that the suspension of the Egyptian domestic league was the reason for the loss.
"The team are currently preparing for the coming season after the Egyptian league was suspended, while our Ghanaian opponent, Chelsea, are in form as they are in the middle of their domestic league season," Yousif told the post-game press conference.
Following the Port Said tragedy 1 February that left over 70 fans dead, the national football league was indefinitely suspended.
"Zamalek's players performed well throughout the first half as we edged to take the lead in the game two times," Yousif added. "In the second half, Zamalek's players made more mistake and we ran into more bad luck."
"We came here to Ghana to win the game not to snatch a draw, but Abdullah Cisse's injury changed our way of playing," Yousif said.
During the game, Zamalek took the lead twice through a brace from debutant Cisse, who joined from Masry after the club was banned for one season in the wake of the Port Said deadly violence. However, African Champions league top scorer Emmanuel Clottey scored a hat trick including a stoppage-time winner to help debutants Chelsea, who are making their maiden African Champions League appearance, claim their deserved win.
In the first half, both teams mount early threats, but Chelsea appeared superior, thanks to the diligent work of Clottey who unsettled Zamalek's shaking defence.
Despite featuring three holding midfielders in Zamalek's starting line-up -- Alexis Mendomo, Ibrahim Salah and Nour El-Sayed -- they hardly paid off as Chelsea poured forward from the very beginning.
Against the run of play, midway through the first half, Zamalek opened the scoring when Cisse, who started the move, ran onto a defence-splitting pass from attacking midfielder Islam Awad to brilliantly chip the ball over keeper Ernest Sowah and into the net to give Zamalek the lead.
Nevertheless, in the 29th minute, capitalising on some poor marking from Hani Said, Clottey sent a diving header into an empty net after a right-wing cross eluded Zamalek's keeper Abdel-Wahed El-Sayed.
Five minutes later, the unmarked Cisse restored Zamalek's lead with a close-range header after a deflected cross from Awad fell into his path. After scoring, he was substituted due to apparently sustaining an injury, making way for Egypt's U-23 team forward Mohamed Ibrahim.
Following the interval, seconds into the second half, Chelsea deservedly equalised when Clottey outpaced the sluggish Mahmoud Fathallah to receive a threaded pass, break clear, round El-Sayed and slot the ball into an empty net.
In order to inject zeal, Zamalek coach Hassan Shehata introduced combative striker Amr Zaki. It was Chelsea, however, who had the upper hand, with Zamalek restricted to some blistering long-range shots.
Afterwards, El-Sayed rushed out in a timely manner to thwart a shot from substitute Ibrahim Issaka with seven minutes remaining but he was powerless to stop Chelsea from securing a late win. Ghana's Issaka held off Zamalek's defender Hani Said to square the ball to an unmarked Clottey, who made no mistake with an easy tap-in.
On paper, having won five Champions League titles, Cairo giants Zamalek looked the favourites to claim an away victory. However, Chelsea proved their might after overcoming heavyweights Raja Casablanca of Morocco and Cameroon's Coton Sport in the preliminary rounds of the championship.
Their victory over the Moroccans was impressive, as they thrashed them 5-0. Likewise, the win was achieved thanks to a hat trick from in-form striker Clottey.
After losing a precious three points, Zamalek are preparing for a worse situation yet when they clash against archrivals Ahli on 22 July, which will coincide with the third day of Ramadan.
Regarding Ahli's match, coach Hossam El-Badri expressed his pleasure in beating TP Mazembe. "The players' experience brings the victory for the team," El-Badri said during the conference following the game.
"They suffered during the game as they were also playing against the Ivorian referee who showed Ahli players more yellow cards," he added. "I have decided to allow the players 48 hours rest before preparing for the coming game against Zamalek."
Ahli, who were playing their first game in the second stint of El-Badri, gave him a winning start in an empty stadium, given a crowd ban that has been imposed by Egyptian authorities since the Port Said tragedy.
In the 12th minute, Ahli were rewarded when classy playmaker Mohamed Abu Treika released Walid Soliman on the left to pull the ball back to striker Emad Meteb, whose precise low shot from the edge of the area went into the bottom corner of the net.
The hosts could have doubled their advantage on 33 minutes following another flowing move similar to the one that led to the opening goal. Soliman ran onto a through pass from Abu Treika on the left before delivering a low cross that found Meteb, whose close-range effort was denied by Mazembe keeper Muteba Kidiaba.
Ahli tried to preserve their slender advantage in the early stages of the second half, apparently bearing in mind that low fitness levels might affect them in the latter stages, given the lack of domestic football activity which left the team with no option but to play some low-key friendly games. In the 85th minute, the Ghanaian side managed to restore parity when Mbwana Samata rose above defender Sherif Abdel-Fadil to meet a left-wing cross with a header that squirmed through the hands of Sherif Ekrami.
Deep into stoppage time, substitute Mohamed Nagi "Gedo" finished off a fine move deep in stoppage time to help Ahli restore their lead. He effectively eluded his markers to control a pull-back from left-back Sayed Moawad, who earlier exchanged passes with Abdallah El-Said, and notched home with aplomb from inside the area.
Unfortunately, Ahli's frontline suffered more injuries, including Abu Treika, Meteb and Soliman.
"Abu Treika will undergo medical tests Wednesday to determine the seriousness of his injury and whether he can join the Olympic squad," according to a statement on the club's official website.
Egypt's Olympic coach, Hani Ramzi, has reached an agreement with Ahli's manager, El-Badri, to allow the Ahli trio of Meteb, Abu Treika and Ahmed Fathi to join the squad that will fly to France Wednesday in preparation for the 2012 London Olympic Games, starting late this month.
"Meteb and Soliman also sustained knocks during the Mazembe game and will undergo medical scans," added club doctor Ehab Ali.
In other football news, the Egyptian Cup will not be played later this month as previously planned after the interior ministry declined to respond to the Egyptian Football Association's (EFA) request on whether it will be able to resume securing domestic football games.
EFA sought to hold the Egypt Cup later this month after Mohamed Morsi was elected as Egypt's president, hoping that his arrival could signal the end of lingering security concerns that dearly affected Egyptian football.
"It's now virtually impossible that we hold the Egypt Cup because the interior ministry did not make any decisions over that matter," EFA's interim chairman Anwar Saleh said during a television interview.
EFA, however, said the new Premier League season should start 24 August.
"A meeting will be held with interior ministry officials at the end of this week, during which we will demand the return of spectators to the stadiums," EFA spokesman Azmi Megahed said.