Fans of Egypt’s Al Ahly are bursting with excitement over a potential FIFA Club World Cup clash against Bayern Munich, but the club's coach, Mohamed Youssef, believes there is a lot at stake before his side can envisage a meeting with the UEFA Champions League holders.
The possibility of facing the European champions was hard to come by during Ahly’s previous four Club World Cup appearances, with the draw usually pitting them against South American opposition in the semi-finals - when they managed to advance from the first round. The Morocco 2013 edition, however, provides them with a potential mouth-watering clash against Bayern Munich should they overcome Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande of China in Agadir on 14 December.
Evergrande won the AFC Champions League after recording some emphatic wins in the knockout stages, but it is perhaps natural that Africa's most-successful club is looking past the Chinese side, and their supporters have flooded Bayern’s official Facebook page with comments highlighting their anticipation of a last four encounter against the Bavarians. They are even discussing the Cairo giants’ chances of beating Bayern, with some referring to a friendly match between the two in January 2012 when the Germans needed a last-gasp goal from Croatian striker Ivica Olic to secure a 2-1 win.
“I disagree with whoever is talking about a game against Bayern Munich, such thoughts are unrealistic," Youssef told FIFA.com this week, saying: "Anyone who understands football well must realise that the most important game is the opening one against Evergrande. Our Chinese opponents are strong. They won the domestic league and the Asian Cup, their squad boasts three excellent foreigners, two Brazilians and an Argentinean player, and they have seven players who are members of China's national team.”
The Red Devils actually have unpleasant memories when it comes to high expectations, having been given a reality check more than once in the annual tournament, most notably when they made their maiden appearance in 2005. Fresh from a comfortable Champions League triumph, an Ahly side who were deemed invincible by Egyptian media were sent crashing down to earth by Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad. It was the same story in 2008 when Ahly slumped to an opening defeat by Mexico’s Pachuca even as many of their fans were looking ahead to a dream final against then-European champions Manchester United.
Ahly, whose best outcome was a third-place finish in 2006, seem to have an even harder time preparing for this edition given the variety of problems plaguing Egyptian football, including the Premier League stoppage. There is no denying that a second consecutive Champions League, and their eighth overall, was a tremendous achievement, but Youssef admitted in a recent news conference it would be difficult to replicate such form in a much tougher international contest.
The rookie boss, who was lauded for having a firm hand on the steering wheel following the abrupt departure of his predecessor, told FIFA.com that he is not considering a huge upset in Morocco. “I’m not setting targets, I’m only focused on our game against Evergrande, which I consider the key to this tournament,” the former Ahly defender said. “If we pass that test, then we will have a chance to compete for the third place. If we don’t, there simply won’t be a third-place playoff. If we either want to face Bayern or compete for the third then our game against Evergrande is the key. For us, this tournament simply means beating Evergrande in the first game."
Ahly have only played in Japan in their four Club World Cup appearances, missing out on the tournament when it was twice held in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 and 2010. They can take heart from the fact that they will play in Morocco, a fellow North African country where Youssef expects to enjoy better support. “Theoretically, playing in Morocco gives us an advantage. First, it’s an Arab country, so the fans there will support us. The weather is also pretty much similar to Egypt’s, so such factors could favour us.”
Youssef will almost have a fully-fit squad to choose from, with the only absentee being striker Ahmed Abdel Zaher who was banned by the club for displaying what was deemed a political gesture after scoring against Orlando Pirates in the Champions League final. Talismanic playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika is set to bring the curtain down on his glittering career, having confirmed he will retire when the tournament ends. He will be looking to increase his four-goal career tally in the event and become the Club World Cup’s sole all-time top scorer before calling it a day, as he is currently level in the record books with Lionel Messi and Denilson.