Derby draw keeps league race alive

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 21 Jun 2022

Egypt’s top two football clubs drew 2-2 on Sunday night in the famed Cairo derby that ensured both are still very much in the running for the league title, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Ahli and Zamalek

The tie, played in Al-Salam Stadium in front of several thousand spectators, meant Zamalek, the defending champions, are still leading the table with 45 points after 21 games with 13 games left, four ahead of third-placed Ahly, who have three games in hand. Pyramids are in second with 43 points from 21 games.

Ahly are trying to wrestle back the title they had held for seven years before Zamalek snagged first place in 2021 for their 13th league championship overall. Ahly have the most of any Egyptian team, 42.

On Sunday, Ahly were guided by interim coach Sami Komsan who was facing a stern test in only his second match in charge following the sudden departure last week of South African coach Pitso Mosimane.

Ahly had won the first fixture 5-3, a record number of goals scored in the derby. Sunday’s encounter had only half that number but produced maybe more excitement.

The first half ended in Ahly’s favour 1-0 thanks to an easy lob in the 12th minute scored by striker Mohamed Sherif following a terrible attempt at a headed clearance by defender Mohamed Abdel-Ghani.

Zamalek, led by veteran Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira who led them to a rare domestic double in 2015, turned the tables in the second half, scoring twice in rapid succession. Zamalek substitute, biggest star and fan favourite Mahmoud Shikabala, always a thorn in Ahly’s side, sent an inch perfect pass for an Achraf Bencharki header in the 68th minute. Shikabala then scored the go-ahead goal eight minutes later, firing low from close range after Ahly’s normally steady Tunisian defender Ali Maloul inexplicably let a tame loose ball escape him.

Ahly, though, would restore parity with 10 minutes left as substitute Mohamed Taher whipped in a cross for Salah Mohsen to head home despite a frantic attempt by goalkeeper Mohamed Awad to clear the ball after it had crossed the goalline.

Referee José Luis Munuera Montero of Spain — foreign referees are perennially used in these often heated crosstown rivalries — saw fit not to use VAR even once, even though a couple of incidents might have required a check, sure of his decisions and that of his assistants.

The two teams were without several key players due to injury, but relatively new faces, especially on Zamalek’s side, admirably picked up the slack. In their quest to make a name for themselves in the local scene’s biggest game, several of these rookies ensured that missing players weren’t missed that much.

The match was also notable for introducing the offspring of former Zamalek greats. Youssef Nabih, whose marauding run down the left led to Shikabala’s goal, is the son of assistant coach Osama Nabih, once the top striker in the league. And midfielder Seif Gaafar made father Farouk, one of Egypt’s best midfielders ever and a current studio analyst, proud as dad showed off a beaming smile in front of the cameras.

For many decades, the home and away derby face-offs were played late in the season in the belief that the race for the title would be so tight that the winner of the crown would not be known until the final whistle, which in turn would produce a top-notch finale.

However, those do-or-die clashes most times did not live up to their billing, so much was the pressure on the players to perform well in such cliff hangers.

In the last couple of years, the derbies have been played early, with at least a dozen games left after that, in the hopes that the players would not approach the contentious meetings as all or nothing and which would, consequently, make for more entertaining engagements.

Following the match, Komsan apologised to his team’s fans for the tie, saying his opponents “showed character and managed to draw”.

On the other hand, Ferreira minced no words, saying Zamalek “deserved to win”

A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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