Preview: Rivalry reaches climax as Ahly, Zamalek clash in 'derby of century'

Hatem Maher , Thursday 26 Nov 2020

Ahly, Zamalek meet in an anticipated African Champions League final at Cairo Stadium on Friday. The match takes place at 21:00 Cairo time (19:00 GMT).

File photo of an Egyptian Premier League game between Ahly and Zamalek (Reuters)

It's a match like no other as perennial Cairo rivals Ahly and Zamalek clash for Africa's top prize on Friday, with a Champions League trophy that both crave so much at stake in the first ever final to feature teams from the same country.

Although both sides met eight times in Africa's blue-riband club competition, Friday's encounter, dubbed "the derby of the century" by local media, will be the most important of all. A defeat would be so hard to swallow and a victory would bring much-needed joy for the winners.

Ahly can draw on their recent near-misses as they make their third final appearance in four years. They lost to Morocco's Wydad and Tunisia's Esperance in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and they will be hoping it's third time lucky this time around.

Long gone are the days of Ahly's African hegemony. From a golden generation that won two successive Champions League titles in 2012 and 2013, only defender Rami Rabia and veteran winger Walid Soliman are still part of the record eight-time African champions.

Rabia is fit to take part in the game after overcoming some nagging injuries but Soliman, whose experience and second-half introductions proved vital on numerous occasions last season, misses out after contracting COVID-19.

Burly Malian Aliou Dieng, an imposing central midfielder whose physical attributes are unmatched in the team, is also out after being infected with the highly-contagious virus, with Hamdi Fathi likely to deputise for him. Another midfielder, Saleh Gomaa, is absent for the same reason but he was highly unlikely to feature anyway.

In a message to motivate his teammates, Soliman said he was brought up on the fact that any 11 players can do the job regardless of absences.

"Ahly win by the spirit of their players, not their names. Let the Red Eagle fly again in the sky of Africa," he said, referring to the club's famous emblem.

Lengthy drought

Zamalek are equally hungry for a title that has proven so elusive. When they won the last of their five trophies in 2002, they were ahead of Ahly in Africa's hall of fame, but their bitter foes surpassed them with a series of triumphs.

The White Knights are yearning for the glory days of the past and, although they came close when they lost to South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns 3-1 on aggregate in the 2016 final, they look better-equipped this year.

They won the Confederation Cup, Africa's secondary club competition, last year before defeating Tunisia's Esperance in the Super Cup in Doha last February. Their squad is now rich with talents, including two former Champions League winners in Moroccan duo Achraf Bencharki and Mohamed Ounajem.

Both combined to devastating effect with Wydad to down Ahly three years ago. Bencharki in particular is now a Zamalek darling, having become the team's highest-scoring foreigner in African competitions in a calendar year after netting nine goals.

"It's going to be a difficult game in which anything is possible. But personally speaking, I want to win the Champions League title because I love challenges and playing against big teams," Bencharki told in an interview.

But Zamalek coach Jaime Pacheco has a selection dilemma after three regulars turned positive results in the latest round of PCR tests on Wednesday, including rock-solid defender Mahmoud El-Wensh, who earned wide acclaim for a series of superb displays lately.

Abdallah Gomaa is also out, leaving the Portuguese boss without a recognized left-back, with the veteran Mohamed Abdel-Shafi still nursing an injury he picked up against Ahly in an Egyptian league derby in August.

Deep-lying forward Youssef Ibrahim has also contracted COVID-19, leaving Pacheco with no option but to do some tweaks that he hopes would not affect the rhythm of the team.

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