LONDON: Tuesday evening could just end up being the turning point of the Egyptian Premier League title race, and soon after Al-Ahly’s football director Sayed Abdel Hafeez explained why.
“We can only blame ourselves, but I challenge Liverpool to play half of its league matches every 48 hours,” he said. “We made a mistake, but we are tired due to the number of games throughout the season and the traveling.”
Zamalek is now within sight of the league championship. Al-Ahly is fading.
Liverpool struggled with injuries and various commitments last season, losing six out of seven in the league between Feb. 3 and March 7, so perhaps Manchester City or Chelsea with their bigger squads would present a better example. But that aside, Abdel Hafeez has a point. Al-Ahly is a victim of its own success as it chases long-time league leader Zamalek, who is looking for a first title since the 2014-15 season and only a second in 17 years.
The 0-0 draw with Tala’ea El-Geish puts the Red Giants four points behind the White Knights, who defeated Wadi Degla 1-0 on the same evening. With just three games remaining, it is hard to see the reigning champions successfully defending their domestic title.
That is partly because of the crazy season and the success that Al-Ahly has had. In February, the Cairo club went to the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar and ended up finishing third thanks to victory over South American champions Palmeiras. Then coach Pitso Mosimane engineered another Champions League triumph, which delivered continental title No. 9 with a 3-0 win over South Africa’s Kaiser Chiefs on July 17.
As the celebrations on that steamy Casablanca evening came to an end, thoughts drifted toward recapturing the Egyptian title, but there was the small matter of the 10-point lead that Zamalek enjoyed at that time. Yet Al-Ahly had 11 games still to play, four more than its rival. Win all four and it would be out in front. Easier said than done, however, given the fact that the team had already played more games and the players were visibly starting to look a little tired.
Since winning the Champions League, Al-Ahly has played eight games in the space of a month and while the tests may not be coming quite as often as the every 48 hours Abdel Hafeez claimed, there is little time to rest, let alone do anything else. Since the beginning of July, the champions have played 13 games while Zamalek has had just four. The leaders have been able to rest, train, rest some more, play, rest and train again. It is no surprise that they have taken 28 points out of a possible 30 and looking fresh as they close in on league title No. 13.
Coach Misomane took a sly dig at the situation last week, blaming the injury to the league’s top scorer Mohamed Sherif on the physical demands placed upon him. “Everyone knows why we lost points,” he said. “We have played games in the CAF Champions League, Egyptian Premier League, Egypt Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and CAF Super Cup, causing a lot of pressure and fatigue.
“I prefer being the fatigued team that participates in many competitions rather than the rested team that wins no titles.”
What is surprising is that Al-Ahly has also been winning games. If it had done so again on Tuesday, it would have been 19 points from the last 21 available and would be two points behind with a superior goal difference and in with a decent chance of a 43rd league title.
And Al-Ahly should have won against El-Geish. The turning point of the game, and perhaps the whole season, was a goal-line incident six minutes before the break. Al-Ahly’s players claimed that Yasser Ibrahim’s header had crossed the line before the ball was cleared. Replays were inconclusive.
Misomane was left to lament the non-decision. “I don’t like to talk about referees and the referee here is experienced and he may not have seen the ball but there are three referees as well as video technology,” he said. “It is painful that this happened and very frustrating.”
Despite the dominance, the visitors just could not find the all-important goal, and they now must win all three games and hope that Zamalek somehow slips up. There is no time to dwell on what might have been, however, as Al-Ahly takes on third-placed Al-Masry on Friday and as Zamalek visits mid-table Ceramica Cleopatra.
The leaders must be full of confidence but Patrice Carteron, who left Saudi Arabia’s Al-Taawoun in March to take over Zamalek, is trying to keep his players’ feet on the ground as they move within touching distance of the league championship.
The Frenchman felt the victory against relegation battlers Wadi Degla should have been more comprehensive.
“I am not satisfied with wasting opportunities and if we had been calmer, we would have scored early but overall, I am happy with the victory,” Carteron said, adding that his team will take each game as it comes in the coming few days. “The league title has still to be won on the pitch and nobody has won it yet. We still need to work hard.”
No team has been working harder than Al-Ahly in recent months, but there seems to be nothing more left in the tank.