After an efficient and disciplined first-half performance on Saturday, Egyptian outfit Al Ahly found themselves two goals to the good and a mere 45 minutes away from a semi-final berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008. By the final whistle however, it was Mexican side Pachuca who had run out 4-2 winners. The 13th December was certainly unlucky for some.
After Al Ahly managed an excellent third place at the FIFA Club World Cup 2006, all of Egypt had been following this year's tournament with expectation. "There's a lot of weight on our shoulders this year as everyone expects us to go one better, if not all the way," said Al Ahly's Portuguese coach Manuel Jose before the tournament, perhaps aware that the burden of expectation can often be too much for a team to cope with.
Forty-five minutes - and two goals - into their quarter-final against Pachuca, optimism was the order of the day, and it looked like Al Ahly were on course for at least a repeat of 2006. "We knew how Pachuca would attack us, how they would try to snuff out our play. Catching them on the break was the way to do it, and we certainly managed that in the first half. The Mexicans had no reply to that," said Jose after the match.
Then all of a sudden, Pachuca woke up - or was it a case of Al Ahly running out of steam? Either way, Jose was not hiding behind excuses at the final whistle. "In the second half we let a goal in after two minutes and that gave Pachuca all the encouragement they needed. It came from a set-piece, even though I'd told the players to be really careful with these, and after that, we were too tired to keep pushing."
The Mexicans equalised with a little over a quarter of an hour to go, at which point it was clear for all to see that Al Ahly were out on their feet. Extra time was a bridge too far, and the Egyptians conceded another two. "We couldn't show what we are really capable of due to the fatigue and the pressure. All four goals came from serious defensive errors - we panicked. The players just couldn't handle the pressure. But we all have to shoulder responsibility for what happened at this tournament, myself included," a downhearted Jose admitted.
The players were equally distraught as they knew just how close they had come to a place in the final four. "We're really disappointed; it's a depressing result. Pachuca's first goal was crucial as it gave them hope", said captain Shady Mohamed. "As a footballer, you have to come to terms with all types of different results, but when you're 2-0 up with a team as experienced as this one, it really hurts," added star striker Mohamed Aboutrika.
Al Ahly are very much the glamour team in Africa with a trophy cabinet beyond compare that includes 33 Egyptian league titles, 35 Egyptian cup successes, six African continental titles (1982, 1987, 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2008) and three qualifications for the FIFA Club World Cup. And yet the Red Devils do not seem to be able to make the step up to the highest stage.
"We may have won a lot of silverware in Africa, but all too often we lose against international opposition. The inexperience of my players at this level was all too obvious today," lamented the coach, who went on to sportingly acknowledge the talent and will to win of the Mexicans. "They played consistently well throughout the match and had substitutes were every bit as good as their starting 11. They were worthy winners."