Club World Cup: Tired and bruised Al Ahly face daunting task against Al Ittihad

Decorated Egyptian club feeling the strain of demanding schedule and indifferent form

Al Ahly players celebrate scoring against Medeama during thir CAF Champions League match in Cairo last month. EPA
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The most decorated club in Africa and across the Arabic-speaking world has been a little out of sorts. While Al Ahly go into Friday's Club World Cup clash with Al Ittihad with no shortage of familiarity with the competition, nor confidence their support in Jeddah will make itself heard long and loud, an extensive list of alibis is ready should theirs be a brief stay in Saudi Arabia.

A certain notoriety has lately clung to the reigning Egyptian and African champions. “Al Ahly always complain about everything,” remarked Rulani Mokwena, the head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns, the South African club who regularly duke it out with the Cairo giants for the status of Africa’s best.

“They are always complaining about referees - only when they lose. Once a big club starts to look at other factors, apart from football, when they lose, they start to lose their status as a big club. I hope that’s not the case with Al Ahly because they are a flagship.”

Spiky. Mokwena was speaking in October, as Sundowns landed a bruise on Al Ahly’s status by eliminating them in the semi-finals of the inaugural African Football League, a tournament the superpowers of the continent envisage superseding the CAF Champions League for prestige and certainly for revenue.

Assuming the AFL grows as planned - the first edition was a short, pilot version - Al Ahly would be expected to put their name on the roll of honour often enough, but right now the club find themselves unusually anxious about matters of regional status.

First, there’s their sluggish form: One win from their last five outings, a sequence not grave enough at this stage of the season to inflict terminal damage on their prospects of defending their Egyptian league crown - they sit second, but with games in hand - or the Champions League they collected for the 11th time in June.

However, head coach Marcel Koller has been concerned by their ineffectiveness in front of goal. At the weekend they were held 0-0 at home by Algeria’s Belouizdad in the continental competition, on the back of a goalless draw in Cairo against mid-table Souma in the league.

Those, like Sundowns’s Mokwena, who are tuned to the sound of grumpy entitlement from Al Ahly, will have noted some of Koller’s explanations. He cited a taxing schedule, with all the attendant commitments that come from being serial champions and the most popular club in the Mena region. “We have met difficult circumstances in terms of stress and mental exhaustion,” said the much-travelled Swiss coach, highlighting fatigue. “The players are only human and they need rest to perform at their best.”

The itinerary has been taxing. Between voyaging to Saudi Arabia three months ago for the CAF Super Cup - a defeat to USM Alger - and completing Friday's assignment in Jeddah, Al Ahly will have played in four different international club competitions, involving journeys back and forth to Pretoria, and twice to Dar-es-Salaam, and two domestic competitions.

They will head to another, the Egyptian Super Cup in the UAE once their Club World Cup adventure is over. For a significant number in the squad, January and February will then be taken up with the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast. Between eight and 10 players are likely to go there, including defender Ali Maaloul with Tunisia, midfielder Aliou Dieng with Mali and Percy Tau with South Africa.

Tau was named as CAF’s Inter Club Footballer of the Year - the best playing in Africa - on Monday, partly because of his decisive impact, as a finisher and creator, in last season’s Champions League, but the winger has struggled with symptoms of tiredness this autumn.

Also, the club’s major summer recruit, the experienced Anthony Modeste, has not provided the attacking punch anticipated when he left Borussia Dortmund for Cairo. Modeste, who has one goal so far in nine appearances, is likely to start on the bench against Al Ittihad.

Koller can only look at his opponents' resources with envy. When Al Ittihad went into the summer transfer market for a French centre-forward they snared not a Modeste but Karim Benzema, who along with midfielders N’Golo Kante and Fabinho, are the club’s yield from a massive year of investment in stars from across the upper echelons of the Saudi Pro League.

In the hierarchy of Mena football, Egypt, for all the huge fanbase of Al Ahly, stands, financially, far behind the Gulf’s most ambitious and upwardly-mobile sporting superpower. The challenge of taking on Al Ittihad in their own city would be daunting enough even for an Al Ahly at their strongest. To do so on the back of indifferent form makes it a taller order still.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 5:45 AM