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Preview: Mission impossible? Egypt's Zamalek retain glimmer of hope in CL

Hatem Maher , Saturday 22 Oct 2016
Zamalek v Sundowns
Zamalek Ayman Hefni (CL) is watched by Mamelodi Sundowns Wayne Arendse (L) Hlompho Kekena (CR) and Asavela Mbekile (R) during the first half of the CAF Champions League final on October 15, 2016 at Atteridgville Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa (AFP)

Last year, Egypt's Zamalek were on the verge of staging a remarkable comeback in the African Confederation Cup, only to falter at the end. They find themselves in a similar situation this year, with a much-awaited Champions League triumph looking implausible.

Zamalek, who host South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns in Alexandria on Sunday, are retaining a glimmer of hope to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit after being outplayed in a night to forget in Pretoria last week. 

The away defeat was a bitter reminder of the team's defensive frailties which almost cost them in the semi final when they conceded five goals at Morocco's Wydad Casablanca in the second leg, only to sneak through 6-5 on aggregate after making the most of their counter-attacking abilities to score twice in Rabat.

They failed to net an away goal against Sundowns though and will be cautious not to ship any more goals that would render their mission almost impossible at Alexandria's 86,000-seat Borg El-Arab Stadium.

Zamalek's novice coach Moemen Soliman, who is eyeing his second trophy at the helm after helping the team win the Egypt Cup at the expense of arch rivals Ahly, said it would be "almost a miracle" to snatch the coveted Champions League title.

But he can take heart from a spirited display under Portuguese boss Jesualdo Ferreira last year.

Having suffered a stunning 5-1 loss at Tunisia's Etoile Sahel in the first leg of the Confederation Cup semi-final, Zamalek scored three goals without reply in the second leg to come within a whisker of an unprecedented comeback. They could not notch the decisive winner though.

Zamalek will be boosted by huge fan support against Sundowns. Many supporters posted pictures of themselves on social media holding signs that read: "We can do it".

"I just ask the fans to be patient. We can score anytime throughout the game," Soliman told the pre-match news conference.

"I don't have magical powers that can help us overturn the deficit but I can promise that we will fight and do our best. We will not repeat the mistakes of the first leg."

Feet on ground

Sundowns are taking nothing for granted despite their comfortable lead, with coach Pitso Mosimane keeping his feet on the ground ahead of what he described as the biggest match of his career.

A triumph for Sundowns would cap a fairytale run after they were originally eliminated from the preliminary round following a defeat by AS Vita Club, only to be reinstated after the DR Congo side were found to have fielded a suspended player in their opening round fixture.

"There will be hostility from Zamalek supporters, but we are ready for anything," Mosimane said.

"A lot of people say Sundowns have already won the trophy but we have to remember that our opponents scored four goals at home in the semi-finals.

"It would be foolish to consider ourselves champions ahead of the return match. We do have an advantage, but there is a big hurdle to clear on Sunday night.

"We know Zamalek will attack from the kick-off, but that will create opportunities for us to catch them on the break with our speed."

Soliman said he decided to field understudy goalkeeper Mahmoud Gennesh instead of Ahmed El-Shennawi, who has come in for fierce criticism following his recent poor displays.

El-Shennawi, who was at fault for Sundowns' second goal in the first-leg defeat, made way for Gennesh in the second half after picking up an injury but he recovered in time to make the second-leg squad.

Nigerian Maarouf Yussuf, a natural midfielder, is expected to keep his place as a left-back due to the shortage of options at Soliman's disposal.

Zamalek have not won Africa's premier club competition since winning the last of their five titles in 2002. Sundowns reached the final once in 2001 but lost to Cairo giants Ahly 4-1 on aggregate.

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