Ahly's midfielder Aliou Dieng (C) vies for the ball against Zamalek's midfielder Tarek Hamed (R) during the Egyptian Super Cup final football match between Ahly SC and Zamalek SC at Mohammed Bin Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi on February 20, 2020 (AFP)
Bitter rivals Ahly and Zamalek clash in the Egyptian Premier League on Saturday with an eye on a different competition -- the African Champions League, where both face tricky tests in the last four as they seek to end barren spells.
For Ahly, Egypt and Africa's most successful outfit, winning the domestic league for a fifth consecutive season appears a mere formality as they enjoy a staggering 17-point lead over second-placed Zamalek with more than half the season played.
Zamalek, on the other hand, are aware that their only realistic hope is to finish second and earn a spot in the Champions League next season.
But for the time being, both are prioritising their ongoing Champions League campaigns, with Saturday's derby serving as a warm-up and testament to who will have the edge when Africa's blue-riband competition resumes next month.
Ahly will meet Wydad Casablanca, with Zamalek taking on another Moroccan side in Raja in two-legged semi-final clashes. Ahly have not won the competition since clinching the last of their record eight titles in 2013, while Zamalek are eyeing their first triumph since 2002.
In the domestic league contest, both sides will be assessing their options after some patchy form of late.
Zamalek have been held to two draws in four games since the league resumed this month following a five-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, while Ahly settled for a solitary stalemate and had to contend with some laboured victories.
Rare off-field problems appear to hinder Ahly, a club known for its administrative stability, with a shock decision by star winger Ramadan Sobhi to turn down their offer to sign him on a permanent basis clouding their league campaign.
Sobhi, who was on loan from English side Huddersfield, told Ahly he plans to join the big-spending Pyramids, potentially changing the dynamics of football in Egypt as the Red Devils might not wield the same purchasing power that they had enjoyed for decades.
The Emirati-owned Pyramids also signed other big-name Ahly players such as goalkeeper Sherif Eramy and veteran right-back Ahmed Fathi -- both on free transfers -- as they look to mount a serious title challenge in the near future and dethrone the dominant power in Egyptian football.
The departure of Sobhi not only raises alarm bells over Ahly's power in the transfer market, but it also deprives them of their most lethal attacking weapon, leaving the club short of creative options in the final third.
Zamalek hit top gear before the league's break, winning the African Super Cup after beating Tunisia's Esperance and defeating Ahly on penalties following a goalless draw in the Egyptian Super Cup.
Moroccan forward Achraf Bencharki stole the show then, mesmerizing opponents with his daring runs, deft touches and clinical finishing, with Tunisian midfielder Ferjani Sassi dictating play with his neat distribution of the ball and striker Mostafa Mohamed finishing powerfully in the box.
Defensive solidity was also evident, raising hopes that Zamalek could finally end their Champions League drought.
However, the White Knights have been largely sluggish since the league restarted, with the form of the likes of Bencharki and Sassi dipping, leaving canny French boss Patrice Carteron with little time to bring them back on track.
Ahly will have to do without some regular players through injury, including central defender Mahmoud Metwalli, who faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines after picking up a knee injury, and winger Hussein El-Shahat. Another winger, Mahmoud Karhaba, is also out as he still serves an eight-match ban for his part in an altercation in the Egyptian Super Cup in February.
Most of Zamalek's regulars are available, although they will miss the services of versatile left-back Abdallah Gomaa due to automatic suspension.
The reverse league fixture saw Ahly awarded a walkover win after Zamalek declined to show up in an acrimonious manner in February, saying the team bus had broken down --a claim which was later proven false.
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