RIYADH: There is no such thing as an unimportant match if you happen to be a fan, player or coach of Al-Ahly and Zamalek, with their combined 15 African Champions League titles.
But both Cairo giants face must-win games this week if there is to be a chance of a 16th continental crown. Any group stage exit for either team would be a major shock and while it has already been a big week for both clubs, it is about to get bigger.
For Zamalek, Friday’s game against Wydad Casablanca is the first for Jesualdo Ferreira in his second spell in charge of the club. It was a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Moroccan giants on Feb. 26 that spelled the end of Patrice Carteron’s tenure in charge.
That also left the White Knights with just two points from the first three games in Group D. Should they lose in Cairo on Friday and group leaders Petro de Luanda defeat fellow Angolans Sagrada Esperanca, as is expected, then Zamalek are out.
It would be a desperate way for Ferreira — something of a fan-favorite after winning the league and cup double in 2015 — to restart his Zamalek career. At the age of 75, it remains to be seen if the former boss of Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon has the energy to revitalize Zamalek over the 18 months of his contract but a good result means that he could hit the ground running.
“Thanks for the many messages and the kind words that the Zamalek fans dedicated to me. I return with pleasure and great ambition. See you soon,” the Portuguese boss said on social media.
Wydad, winners in 1992 and 2017, arrive in Egypt in a confident mood, though coach Walid Regragui is prepared for a tough game.
“We will have to rise up to the occasion. Zamalek will have their fans’ support and it will be a challenge,” Regragui said. “Zamalek have a number of international players, and they now have a new head coach. The game won’t be easy. However, we will not be playing for a draw, we are travelling to Egypt for victory.”
Ferreira will turn his thoughts to domestic matters after the big champions league tests to come. Defending champions Zamalek are currently third in the league with 25 points from 11 matches, one behind Pyramids and three behind Al-Ahly (who have played one fewer game). The next Premier League action comes early next month with a big game against Pyramids.
Al-Ahly also are in need of points in Africa but their situation on and off the pitch is more stable than their city rivals with head coach Pitso Mosimane signing a new contract on Wednesday.
“Al-Ahly are delighted to announce that Pitso Mosimane has signed a contract extension with the club for two more years,” the club said in a statement. “The coach and his assistants signed the new contract, ensuring they will remain at the helm until 2024.”
The South African boss went north in October 2020 and has been a major success, winning back-to-back CAF Champions League titles as well as steering the Red Giants to successive third place finishes at the FIFA Club World Cup. He has been in charge of the club in 83 matches, winning 59, drawing 17, losing just seven, scoring 182 goals while conceding 70. There had been rumors swirling around whether the 57-year-old would stay but now there is clarity.
“The (real) contract is on the pitch,” said Mosimane. “We had been back and forth about it. The team is happy, and I am happy; that’s more important. So, where do you want to go if you don’t want to stay here?”
It is a triumph for the boss who has, at times, struggled with negative comments publicly expressed from former players, especially early on in his tenure. The reaction this week has been positive, however, with Mido, a former Egyptian international and ex-Zamalek player, welcoming the news. “Al-Ahly renewing Mosimane’s contract is more important than any other trophy right now,” Mido said. “Mosimane’s contract renewal with Al-Ahly is a major trophy in itself.”
Mosimane has a big game to prepare for against his former club Mamelodi Sundowns on Saturday after losing against the South African giants at home in the previous round. That defeat left the 10-time champions second in Group A, three points behind Sundowns and level with Sudan’s Al-Merrikh.
Should Al-Ahly lose in Johannesburg then they could be three points off second with two games remaining — not quite time to panic but certainly time to worry. Three points will be most welcome then although right-back Mohamed Hany, midfielder Hamdi Fathi, and winger Hussein El-Shahat are all struggling and face late fitness tests before being cleared to play.
After their champions league commitments, the league leaders will return to domestic concerns against Al-Ittihad on April 6.
The situation in Africa is brighter for several other Arab clubs. Raja Casablanca have won all three games in Group B with Algeria’s ES Setif in third with three points from three games. Tunisian clubs Esperance and Etoile du Sahel are in first and third in Group C with CR Belouizdad of Algeria in second.
Most of the attention, however, will be on the fate of the two Egyptian giants and whether they can bounce back from damaging defeats — especially Zamalek.