In a candid interview with FIFA.com, Al Ahly's Mohamed Aboutrika reveals why he believes that the Egyptian giants have struggled to replicate last year's form.
After leading Egypt to CAF African Cup of Nations success earlier this year, Mohamed Aboutrika is desperate to lift another piece of silverware - this time the CAF Champions League trophy - before the year is out.
However, Aboutrika and his team-mates face an uphill battle if they are to retain the trophy as a 1-1 draw in Cairo handed CS Sfaxien the advantage going into the second leg in Rades on Saturday.
FIFA.com: When the competition began, you were clear favourites for the title, after going unbeaten last year - but you struggled to reach the final this year and now you travel to Tunisia as the underdogs to win the Champions League. Whatever happened to the invincible Ahly?
Mohamed Aboutrika: A lot of things. Firstly, we are totally exhausted. We haven't been resting enough lately. We've been playing football continuously for two successive seasons in extremely competitive environments: the Egyptian league, the Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. Given that most of our players are internationals, we've also been involved in World Cup qualifiers, Cup of Nations matches and friendlies.
We've also been subjected to tragedy - namely witnessing the death of our friend and team-mate Mohamed Abdelwahab on the pitch. It shocked and saddened us all.
The fact that we were unbeaten for two years actually played against us. Every team wanted to beat us in matches and went the extra mile to try and end our wonderful run. Eventually it happened - no one can stay on the winning side forever.
Do you feel that this year's CAF Champions League is not as tough as the 2005 edition?
Yes I do. The likes of Zamalek, Raja Casablanca, Etoile Sahel and Esperance all failed to reach the group stage of this year's competition, so 2005 was much more competitive when those teams were involved. This year, out of what you may call the 'big' teams, only ASEC Abidjan and CS Sfaxien of Tunisia have been in impressive form.
Yet, despite this, you seem to have faced more difficulties in your race to the title?
People don't realize that we are missing six international players who helped us win the competition in 2005 through injury: Emad El Nahas, Ahmed El Sayed, Mohamed Barakat, Osama Hosny and Gilberto.
So, would you say that your team is weaker this time around?
We are not as strong as last year - no team would be. However, I don't want to blame the players - it is just the situation that we find ourselves in. We have good young players in Seddeek, Shedeed and Haysam, but they just need more confidence. Those players are always under pressure when they come into the team, because immediately the fans compare them to Gilberto or Barakat. They just need more time to settle into the side.
Do you think the squad is tense going into the game against Sfaxien?
Yes, of course, but there is no harm in that - we always are going into a big game. What we are finding difficult is the criticism that is being leveled at our coach - Manuel Jose. He has done a fantastic job - and I am sure that no other coach could have achieved what he did this year. In my opinion, reaching the final of the Champions League this season has been a remarkable achievement.
How do you rate your chances in the second leg?
I am very optimistic. I feel very positive about winning in Tunisia. That is not to say I am taking Sfaxien lightly - on the contrary, I respect them a lot. They play very well as a team, but they do have weaknesses and I am confident that we can exploit them.
Finally, what are your wishes as we reach the end of 2006?
To make a second appearance in Japan mainly to improve the poor impact we made last year. I'd also like to score on Saturday to become the top scorer of this competition and finally, I would love to be nominated for the CAF Best Player award. That would make 2006 a very special year!