Zamalek need to end their Cairo derby jinx to make sure they would remain in contention for a place in the African Champions League semis, with Sunday's clash against cross-town rivals Ahly giving them a timely opportunity to recover from a series of setbacks.
The ailing White Knights have not defeated Ahly since 2007 as their more illustrious opponents maintained an upper hand in the Cairo derby even when they appeared more of an underdog in some games.
The curse still haunted Zamalek during their previous Champions League meeting against Ahly in July when they took an early lead through a goal from striker Ahmed Gaafar but ended up sharing honours with their bitter foes despite creating the better chances in the Group A encounter.
They extended their winless derby streak to 15 games, giving their desperate fans every reason to believe the jinx might continue for the foreseeable future.
Zamalek claimed their first group victory when they defeated South Africa's Orlando Pirates 2-1 at home earlier this month to revive their hopes of booking a last-four berth, having lost twice and drawn once in their first three matches.
But they are still in a delicate situation.
They have four points, three behind Congo's AC Leopards, Ahly and Orlando Pirates. Leopards defeated Pirates 1-0 on Saturday to throw the race for the two semi-final tickets wide open.
Zamalek host Leopards in their final match after facing Ahly.
"Ahly is a big team and we respect them so much, but we fear no one. They will play to win, as we’ll do also. We both want to reach the semi finals," Zamalek coach Helmi Toulan, who took over at the club following the summer departure of Brazilian boss Jorvan Vieira, said in an interview with CAFonline.com.
"Definitely it’s going to be a very tough game. This is Egypt’s and one of Africa’s biggest derbies and there is a lot at stake for both sides if they want to reach the semis.
"Zamalek and Ahly both know that a win will keep qualification hopes intact. It’s going to be an open and exciting game."
Toulan will have to do without central defender Hani Said due to a row over his late wages while his defensive partner Salah Soliman is doubtful because of a knee injury, making life more difficult for a side who are still struggling to cope with the summer departures of some key players.
Defensive midfielder Ibrahim Salah's move to a Saudi club left Zamalek exposed to any neatly-worked counter attack, with the three-man midfield Toulan often deploys failing to close down spaces due to the lack of a tough-tackling player.
Shortage of options upfront is also limiting Zamalek's attacking prowess following the departure of Burkinabe Abdoulaye Cisse. Ahmed Gaafar, who usually plays as a lone frontman, hardly won over Zamalek's demanding supporters.
Ahly boast a more complete squad that has helped them overcome the adverse effects of a domestic football stoppage enforced by the Egyptian Football Association following the army's overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.
The defending champions almost have a fully fit squad for the Zamalek tie as they seek to secure their progress to the semis with one match to spare.
"Ahly enters every game with one goal which is to win, and that’s what we’re playing for on Sunday," the Red Devils' rookie coach Mohamed Youssef said.
"Maximum points are our aim so that we guarantee our semi final spot before leaving to South Africa to face Orlando Pirates in the final group match day. A derby win will boast our morale and help us to achieve a positive result against Pirates to win the group."
The match will take place in the Red Sea resort of Gouna due to lingering security concerns in Cairo. It will also be played behind closed doors as Ahly serve the first of a two-match crowd ban imposed following fan trouble in the team's 2-1 home win over Leopards last month.
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