Egypt's Zamalek, backed by rare fan support, claim first-leg win

Hatem Maher , Saturday 9 Apr 2016

Fans of Egypt's Zamalek celebrate with flares after a goal against Algeria's Bejaia in the African Champions League on Saturday (Reuters)

Zamalek were finally boosted by heavy fan support at home for the first time in months as they claimed a 2-0 home victory over Algeria's MO Bejaia to move close to a place in the African Champions League group stage on Saturday.

Thousands of hardcore supporters, who belong to ardent fan group Ultras White Knights, took their seats in the northern stands of Cairo's Petrosport Stadium and feverishly cheered on Zamalek who did not let them down with a convincing performance in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16.

A few hundreds have attended Zamalek's recent Egyptian league and Champions League matches but only upon invitations from the club, given a long-standing crowd ban enforced by authorities since a football tragedy in 2015.  

Winger Mahmoud Kahraba, who was fielded as a lone striker by coach Alex McLeish in his favourite 4-2-3-1 formation, opened the scoring on 59 minutes after a goalless first half and substitute Ahmed Hamoudi added the second with eight minutes remaining to put Zamalek in a pole position to reach the last eight as they bid for their first Champions League triumph since 2002.

Ultras White Knights relentlessly pushed for the crowd ban to be lifted after supporters were barred from attending any home match following the February 2015 disaster which saw more than 20 Zamalek fans die in a stampede after they were tear-gassed by security forces before the start of a domestic league game.

They finally had their request accepted, albeit only in African competitions, and their presence appeared to spur on Zamalek's players who celebrated with the fans following the final whistle.

Members of Ultras White Knights were let in despite the presence of Zamalek's outspoken chairman Mortada Mansour, a bitter foe who branded them "terrorists" and vowed to keep them away from the team's matches.

Bejaia, who are making their debut in Africa's premier club competition, host Zamalek in the second leg on 19 April.

Lively start

Zamalek made a lively start, appearing hardly affected by the lack of an out-and-out striker in their starting line-up.

They created two chances in the first quarter of an hour, with Kahraba firing straight at the keeper from a tight angle after being played in by a defence-splitting pass and winger Mohamed Ibrahim blasting high over with the goal at his mercy following a pull-back from playmaker Ayman Hefni.

Bejaia's solitary opportunity fell to skipper Zahir Zerdab, who caused constant problems to Zamalek's backline in any breakaway.

On 32 minutes, Zedrab muscled his way into the area, skipping past left-back Hamada Tolba and central defender Mohamed Koffi before hitting an angled shot that was denied by the legs of towering goalkeeper Ahmed El-Shennawi.

Zamalek maintained their dominance in the second half but were let down by some poor touches in the final third as Bejaia continued to sit back to keep a clean sheet.

However, the visitors' resistance ended in the 59th minute when Hefni released Kahraba with a superb long ball and the former Luzern and Grasshopper loanee netted home the rebound after his attempted chip was tipped by the keeper.

Former Basel winger Hamoudi, who is struggling to force his way into the starting line-up, made the most of a fine Hazem Emam cross at the far post to fire home a half-volley and make it 2-0 on 82 minutes.

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