No repeat of 2003 nightmare as Ahly blossom under Dutchman Martin Jol
Hatem Maher , Saturday 25 Jun 2016

With Ahly enduring some nervy days towards the end of their Egyptian Premier League campaign, some pessimistic fans feared a repeat of a 2003 nightmare when the team collapsed on the final day of the season under Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere.

On a doomed day in that year, Ahly suffered a stunning 1-0 loss to ENPPI to gift Zamalek the title after their Cairo rivals defeated Ismaily to overtake them at the top with a one-point advantage.

As heartbreaking as it was, Ahly have not done business with any Dutchman until Martin Jol arrived to take charge of the club last February, repeatedly saying he was impressed with the large and passionate fan base of Egypt and Africa’s most successful outfit.

And another nightmarish scenario was not on the cards, thanks to a series of convincing and often eye-catching displays under the former Tottenham Hotspur boss, who immediately made his presence felt as the Red Devils reclaimed their favourite title after Zamalek had briefly ended their eight-season hegemony last year.

When Jol took over following the sudden resignation of Portuguese Jose Peseiro, Ahly had just beaten Petrojet to open up a six-point lead under caretaker coach Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Shafi "Zizo" after three earlier draws briefly allowed Zamalek to trim the gap to three points.

At the same time, Zamalek lured another former English Premier League manager in Scottish Alex McLeish, who said he was looking forward to the challenge of facing a former rival.

McLeish’s tenure was short-lived though as he appeared to struggle to impose his tactics and he was clearly outshone by Jol, whose most notable achievement was instilling harmony in a four-man frontline comprising a lone striker and three attacking midfielders.

The likes of 19-year-old prodigy Ramadan Sobhi, Gabon striker Malick Evouna and classy playmaker Abdallah El-Saied produced a free-flowing football not seen for long, sending astute passes to one another in the blink of an eye and finishing clinically, standing out with a newly-found chord.

Ahly began their reign under Jol with five straight league wins to extend the gap with McLeish’s stuttering Zamalek but they still came down to earth after a sudden 1-0 last-gasp loss to Wadi Degla in May.

Defensive frailties

Ahly remained formidable upfront but some defensive cracks started to appear, with central defender Rami Rabia and full-backs Ahmed Fathi and Sabri Rahil particularly looking shaky under pressure.

They dropped more points in another surprise 3-2 defeat by Masry earlier this month as Zamalek closed to within five points of the leaders, the same gap which separated both sides in the 2002-03 season before the final drama.

But another upset was not meant to be, with Ahly defeating Ismaily 2-1 on Friday to gain an unassailable seven-point lead over Zamalek, who were held to a 2-2 draw by Masry on the same day, with only two matches remaining including a Cairo derby which could have been decisive.

Ahly were largely helped by some summer recruits after a disappointing last season which they ended without a major trophy, bringing in the likes of Evouna, Rabia and Egypt defender Ahmed Hegazy.

Evouna, whose reported $2.5 million arrival marked the most expensive transfer in Egyptian football history, made a slow start before gelling into the team, scoring 12 goals in 24 appearances.

"Winning the title in Egypt means more to me than winning it in Holland. Pleasing 100 million in Egypt is different to pleasing 50 million at home," Jol told ONTV satellite channel after the win over Ismaily.

"Ahly are the biggest club in Egypt, managing such a side means you'll never be able to get into enough sleeping."

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