A long football break looked to have taken its toll on Zamalek after the Cairo giants lost 4-2 at Tunisia’s Club Africain in the first leg of the African Champions League round of 32.
Zamalek barely enjoyed the match’s festive atmosphere following the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia which forced the presidents of both countries to leave office.
It was Africain who made the most of a sluggish display by Zamalek, who have played only their second competitive match since the eruption of the Egyptian 18-day revolt on 25 January, to gain a comfortable advantage and become favorites to book a last-16 berth.
Chad striker Ezechiel Ndouaselto gave Africain an early lead but Mahmoud Abdel-Razek ‘Shikabala’ struck a superb free kick to level the score just before the break.
Africain went 3-1 up early in the second half via two strikes from Youssef Mouihbi and Karim Aouadhi but substitute Ahmed Gaafar narrowed the gap with 11 minutes remaining as Zamalek appeared content to go home with a narrow defeat.
However, Bilal Iffa ensured Zamalek would have an uphill climb in the second leg after heading home four minutes from time to spark wild celebrations in the stands.
Africain mounted early pressure and exploited the gaps in Zamalek’s shaky defense to open the scoring as early as the fourth minute.
Ndouaselto, who caused Zamalek’s backline all sorts of problems in the first half, escaped his marker and headed home following a fine cross from the left.
Africain could have doubled their advantage on several occasions but were thwarted by some impressive saves from Zamalek goalkeeper Abdel-Wahed El-Sayed.
The visitors managed to restore parity against the run of play, thanks to an outstanding free-kick from Shikabala. The dazzling forward, who was the White Knights’ sole lively performer, curled a delightful left-foot shot over the wall and into the net from a difficult angle.
Africain still had the upper hand, however, and almost regained their advantage just before the break but Ndouaselto fired wide with the goal at his mercy.
Zamalek could not withstand sustained pressure in the second half, leaking two goals following recurring defensive lapses.
Africain’s Mouihbi notched home from close range in the 48th minute after a free kick evaded a host of defenders and went into his path.
The hosts widened the gap five minutes later when Aouadhi converted a penalty after Zamalek defender Mahmoud Fathallah clumsily brought down an onrushing opponent in the penalty area.
Zamalek coach Hossam Hassan introduced towering striker Ahmed Gaafar instead of Algerian Mohamed Aoudia, who was largely ineffective, in a bid to inject zeal.
The substitution paid off on 79 minutes when a Shikabala free kick found Gaafar unmarked at the far post to stab the ball home despite desperate attempts by the keeper to gather it.
But Iffa dealt a blow to Zamalek hopes when he towered unmarked to head home a corner on 86 minutes and hand Africain a valuable win.