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Thursday, 24 June 2021

Preview: Defence is key as Zamalek meet Morocco's Raja in Champions League

Zamalek are expected to adopt their trademark counter-attacking strategy when they meet Raja in Casablanca in the first leg of the African Champions League semis on Sunday

Ahram Online , Saturday 17 Oct 2020
Achraf Bencharki (L) and Ahmed Zizo are two of Zamalek's key players (File photo: Reuters)

When Zamalek brought in Portuguese coach Jaime Pacheco last month, they had a two-legged African Champions League semi-final against Morocco's Raja firmly in mind.

With little time to prepare for the crunch showdown, they needed someone who can build on the work of Frenchman Patrice Carteron, whose reliance on a compact defence and fast breakaways was key in helping Zamalek qualify for the semis and win the African Super Cup in February.

Zamalek face Raja in Casablanca in the last-four first-leg on Sunday, with the wily Pacheco likely to put an extra emphasis on his backline to ensure a solid display away from home.

But a major concern would be the expected absence of central defender Mahmoud Alaa, who still looks not fully fit after recovering from an injury.

Alaa has been one of Zamalek's best performers this season, forming a solid partnership with Mahmoud Hamdi in the heart of a four-man defence. His aerial prowess, which also helps him score at the other end, and good anticipation of crosses makes him a key member of the team's starting line-up.

Zamalek will probably also have to do without Tunisian holding midfielder Ferjani Sassi, who contracted COVID-19 while on international duty last week.

A hectic run of fixtures left Zamalek with little breathing space as Pacheco could not afford the luxury of resting his key players because the club are still challenging Pyramids FC for the league's second place, with the race going to the wire.

"We played five matches in 15 days and the players are exhausted. I hope this won't be reflected in the game [against Raja]," Pacheco said on Zamalek's official website.

"Playing the second leg at home is only an advantage on paper; all four teams have an equal chance of winning the trophy."

Raja are in a buoyant mood after winning the Moroccan league on the final day of the season in dramatic fashion, pipping Casablanca rivals Wydad, who face Zamalek's Cairo nemesis Ahly in the other Champions League semi-final.

The hosts are also missing some key players through injury, including defenders Abdeljalil Jbira and Omar Boutayeb and midfielder Abderrahim Achchakir.

Zamalek have some fond memories of their Champions League meetings with Raja, having won the last of their five titles in 2002 with a 1-0 aggregate victory over the Moroccans in the final.

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