Al Ahly dream of a place in the final
There was understandably plenty of celebrating when Egypt's Ahly Sporting Club beat Auckland City 2-0 in the opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006. Al Ahly's defeat of the New Zealand outfit was the first-ever victory by an African team at the tournament.
For the club from Cairo, it was another new chapter in an ongoing success story. With 30 domestic championships and ten major African titles to their name, the Egyptian side believe it is high time they left their mark on club football at a global level.
Of course, the rest of the field in Japan will have other ideas about that. Victory over the part-timers of Auckland City came as no great surprise, but in South American champions Internacional, Al Ahly are up against opponents of a quite different calibre in the semi-final. To progress any further, coach Manuel Jose's side will have to improve considerably, particularly in front of goal. With better finishing against Auckland, the game could have been in the bag by half-time. As Jose said afterwards, "We were very nervous in the first half. We lost our shape and kept trying to play through the middle."
The Portuguese coach is well aware that there will be no room for that kind of nervousness against the Copa Libertadores winners. "That (self-confidence) is a big difference between Brazilian and Egyptian football. We need to believe in ourselves more. My players shouldn't think about things too much, because we've nothing to lose. At worst, they'll gain valuable experience. The team has no reason to fear the opposition as we have some good footballers of our own."
Three of those in particular stood out against Auckland - playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika and strikers Flavio and Emad Moteab. Aboutrika's probing passes to the two pacy front-men proved a constant thorn in the side of the Oceania club champions, with second-half strikes by Flavio and Aboutrika sealing the win for Al Ahly. Against Internacional, the tricky and dangerous Moteab is now hoping to get off the mark, and add to the goal he netted in his side's 2-1 defeat by FC Sydney in last year's competition.
Outlining his team's ambitions to FIFA.com, the striker said: "We are determined to win, because we want to measure ourselves against Ronaldinho and the rest. People always expect a lot from an African team, but it's often forgotten that we are always the last side to qualify. So there's never enough time to prepare properly for such an important tournament and, in particular, to study the other teams closely."
After a week in Japan, the effects of jet lag and adapting to a new environment should no longer be a factor when the CAF champions run out against Internacional. Al Ahly captain Shady Mohamed says his players respect the Brazilians but "are not intimidated by the opposition". As one of the Egyptian side's most experienced players, he is confident of their own abilities, saying: "Over the past five years we've garnered a wealth of experience against big names. In fact, we've played against some of the best teams in the world, the likes of Real Madrid, Ajax, Roma and PSG. And we've had a few good results along the way."
The players know that their full concentration and a top-notch performance will be required if they are to have any chance in the semi-final. If they can deliver such a performance, and their renowned strikers can find their shooting boots, then, who knows, a surprise could be on the cards.