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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Preview: Everything to play for as Ahly, Zamalek clash in highly-charged Cairo derby

Hatem Maher , Saturday 30 Mar 2019
Ahly v Zamalek
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The coveted Egyptian Premier League title remains up for grabs as bitter foes Ahly and Zamalek clash in an anticipated Cairo derby on Saturday that could make or break their season.

With only two points separating the perennial rivals, all eyes will be on Alexandria's Borg El-Arab Stadium that despite all the hype surrounding the match will only host less than 100 spectators due to security concerns.

But a subdued atmosphere in the stands is not likely to reflect on the pitch, where both sides are expected to give it their all in a derby billed as the most competitive in years, thanks to Ahly's sudden climb up the table after they arrested a patchy form.

Less than three months ago, Ahly's season looked to be unravelling. A series of disappointing results saw them fall behind in the title race, with Zamalek opening up a comfortable seven-point lead over the defending champions.

However, some timely signings in January turned around the fortunes of Ahly, who made the most of the undoubted qualities of the likes of Ramadan Sobhi, who re-joined his boyhood club on a short-term loan deal from Huddersfield Town, and Angolan winger Geraldo to remind their challengers that it's not the time to write them off yet.

Since slumping to a 2-1 defeat by Pyramids in early January, Ahly have chalked up nine straight wins and, coupled with three draws for Zamalek including two successive 2-2 outcomes in the previous two matches, the gap was trimmed and the title race was thrown wide open.

Zamalek, on the other hand, appeared more consistent this term despite the recent struggles, producing some vivid attacking displays that had their fans believing it is their time to wrestle the title from Ahly, winners of the past three editions.

Heated exchanges between supporters of both sides have flooded social networking websites in recent days, with every group sharpening its knives in anticipation of a much-needed victory.

Who will claim the bragging rights of the derby will hinge on small details, with both sides not short on quality.

Apart from their long-term absentees, there are no injury worries for Ahly and Zamalek.

The only question for Ahly coach Martin Lasarte would likely be whether to field Marwan Mohsen or Nigerian Junior Ajayi as a lone striker. Should Mohsen get the nod, Ajayi is likely to be deployed on the left flank, where he often links up well with in-form full-back Ali Maaloul, a Tunisian fan favourite.

Zamalek's Swiss boss Christian Gross is not known for tweaking his side and he is expected to stick to the men he trusts, with winger Mahmoud Kahraba likely to keep his place on the left despite some disciplinary problems of late.

From a tactical point of view, Lasarte will have a lot of work to do if he is to shackle Tunisian midfielder Ferjani Sassi, Zamalek's key player who often dictates play with his deft through passes behind the defence.

As is always the case in Cairo derbies, a foreign official will be in charge of the game, with Romanian referee Istvan Kovacs selected for the match by the Egyptian Football Association.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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