A series of obstacles have hardly hampered Egypt’s Al Ahly, who have continued to defy the odds with some assured displays in the CAF Champions League as they march towards a possible record-extending eighth continental crown.
As defending champions, Al Ahly shrugged off any targets on them in topping Group A with 11 points from six matches – losing only once and claiming a satisfying 4-2 victory over Cairo rivals Zamalek along the way. A 1-1 draw in the first leg of the semi-finals at Coton Sport has continued to signal their intent to retain the Champions League and earn another spot in the annual FIFA Club World Cup, which is at the end of the year in Morocco.
That the Red Devils have continued relatively unscathed through Africa's biggest club competition has wowed their sceptical fans as they've been hampered by a lack of domestic action after the Egyptian Premier League was called off again. With ongoing political instability in Egypt depriving Ahly of regular competitive matches, they are still nonetheless favourites to finish off the Cameroonian club this weekend and qualify for the final, with rookie coach Mohamed Youssef able to keep his side better than par with relatively more stable opponents.
“Excuses are not permitted at our club,” Youssef said in an interview with FIFA.com. “All the players know what it means to represent Ahly, and they are aware of their responsibilities. We always try to turn negatives into positives.”
Seizing on the Champions League
The former Ahly defender took over at the club following the departure of Hossam El Badry, under whom the team won a seventh Champions League accolade last term at the expense of North African rivals Esperance of Tunisia. When Youssef took the reins of Egypt and Africa’s most successful club, he was primarily tasked with maintaining the period of domestic and continental dominance.
However, a few months into his arrival, the Premier League was cancelled, complicating efforts to mount a serious tilt at the more lucrative Champions League. “The domestic football stoppage was one of several problems facing us, but we were motivated to overcome that. We were determined to keep our Champions League route open because it was the only competition to play for,” Youssef said.
“Nothing is certain with regards to domestic football. We don’t know whether the Egyptian Cup will go ahead and even when you arrange a friendly game you are not sure whether it will be played. That means you only have the Champions League to play for. It has been like a lifeline for us. [Keeping that going] was our motive.”
Nothing is certain with regards to domestic football.
Youssef explains that he had no option but to resort to some low-key friendly games to bridge the fitness gap between Ahly and their Champions League competitors, a strategy which he believes went some way towards easing the crisis. “We tried to make the most of some friendly matches to keep our rhythm, but they still can never resemble competitive matches in which you are under stress to deliver,” he added.
The Premier League’s cancellation was not the only obstacle that threatened to derail Ahly’s progress, with the absence of some key players and the team having to play away from Cairo without their enthusiastic supporters. Ahly played their home Champions League encounters in the Red Sea resort of El-Gouna, some 430 kilometres south of Cairo, due to lingering security concerns in the capital. Most of the games were played behind closed doors.
“We were not accustomed to that venue or the different weather in Gouna, but we still managed to get used to it. Some important players have also left us: Hossam Ghaly joined Lierse, Mohamed Barakat retired, Emad Meteab was injured and Mohamed 'Gedo' moved to Hull City,” Youssef stated. “But we have a saying: ‘those who arrived represent Ahly’. This means that even when a player or two are absent, and we are enduring a tough period, anyone donning the Ahly kit is playing for the club, so he should be up to that task.”
Another Esperance meeting potentially looms
With an away goal from the first leg against Coton Sport in the bag, Ahly are favoured to set up another clash against Tunisian giants Esperance, whom they've met six times during the past three years, including last year’s final when Ahly prevailed with a 3-2 aggregate victory. Esperance played out a goalless draw at Orlando Pirates in the other semi-final first leg.
Naturally Youssef resists joining in on the conjecture that is sweeping the continent about the anticipated re-match. “With all due respect to those who are talking about a possible game against Esperance, this is very premature, and it’s wrong to talk about that when you have a game against a tough opponent like Coton Sport,” he said.
Youssef also insisted his Ahly side still retain the hunger for a FIFA Club World Cup appearance despite taking part in four out of the nine tournaments played so far. “We have some young players who are eager to play in the Club World Cup for the first time, and those who already participated in the tournament want to play again,” he said. “The experienced players who were present in the past four participations are aware it might be their last chance to feature in the tournament during the upcoming edition in Morocco. Ahly always play for top spots.”