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Zamalek’s exit from CAF Champions League highlights roller-coaster 2022 for Egyptian football

This has already been a roller-coaster year for Egyptian football. The national team reached the final of the African Nations Cup and then lost to Senegal in a penalty shootout.

Al-Ahly then took third-place in the Club World Cup but the defending African champions are struggling in the current edition of the continental event after losing two of their first four games.

More shocking is the news that Zamalek are already out after another defeat. Fans in the country will hope that the crucial World Cup play-off against Senegal later this month will bring much better news.

Zamalek’s exit is huge. But the five-time winners are walking away empty-handed after collecting just two points from the first four games in Group D.

After struggling to two draws against Angolan pair Petro de Luanda and Sagrada Esperanca, back-to-back losses at the hands of Moroccan powerhouse Wydad Casablanca meant that the Egyptian champions can — and indeed must — focus on defending their domestic title. The first of those losses, a 3-1 defeat on Feb. 26, cost Patrice Carteron his job, and the second is not the best way for new boss Jesualdo Ferreira to start his second spell at the club.

Needing to win against Casablanca, it was the visitors who took the points in Cairo with Yahya Jabrane’s penalty early in the second-half sealing all three points.

“The situation is definitely not satisfactory for the club or the fans but Zamalek lost their chance of qualifying long before today,” Ferreira said. “I don’t know the root of the problem, but I saw the players losing focus in the second-half, after we were better and more organized in the first-half.”

Understandably, the 75-year-old Portuguese boss was keen to point out that he had just arrived. “We conceded an early goal in the second-half and the team fell apart, this means there’s a problem. I took charge three days ago so I didn’t have enough time to assess the situation.”

The blame is being put on some players. Zamalek President Mortada Mansour, re-elected to the position last month, promised changes. “I signed 50 percent of the players from the current generation,” he said. “And when I came back, I found many things that changed outside the field, such as their way of thinking, and I told Jesualdo that we have good players, but not a good team.”

Mansour took the unusual decision of telling Egyptian television the names of five players whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season and will not be renewed: Omar El-Said, Tarek Hamed, Achraf Bencharki, Mohamed Abou-Gabal and Mohamed Ounajem. Tunisian striker Seifeddine Jaziri is to be sold amid interest from clubs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The outspoken Mansour insisted however that this was not just a reaction to the Champions League exit.

“The decisions to not renew are well thought out, but we hadn’t announced them,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to speak about renewal, everyone whose name was mentioned will leave at the end of the season… we will do what is in the best interest of the club.”

Zamalek still have two games to play in the competition but now Ferreira will turn his attention to a crucial Egyptian Premier League tie on April 6 against Pyramids. With the champions in third place after 11 games, one point behind their upcoming opponents, victory would be welcome news for the club.

Al-Ahly are in first in the league, three points above Zamalek and with a game in hand, but their dominant domestic form has yet to translate on to the African stage. It means that there will be no resting players in the two remaining Group A games. The champions have to win.

Two weeks after losing to Mamelodi Sundowns 1-0 in Cairo, the South Africans triumphed by the same scoreline in Johannesburg. The defeat means that Al-Ahly has dropped down into third with four points from four games.

Just days after coach Pitso Mosimane signed a new contract, this was a painful return to the home of his former club. Peter Shalulile grabbed the only goal midway through the first-half and that was that. Mosimane was unhappy with the local fans who prevented the team bus from arriving at the stadium in time and Al-Ahly lodged an official complaint. More concerning however is that the Red Giants, despite plenty of possession, have not scored in the last three games.

“Sundowns are a strong team and we expected to score from a corner and started the first-half well but what happened was that we conceded and we didn’t score despite the chances we had,” Mosimane said. “This is the fate of the big team and there is no club in Africa that has so many matches. We are not creating excuses to justify the result, but we will continue to work since the results of the group-stages are not the only measure of the team’s assessment.”

There was some good news from the other game in the group. Had Al-Merrikh defeated Al-Hilal in the all-Sudan clash then Al-Ahly would now be three points behind second. Hilal’s 1-0 win, however, means that while the Sundowns are six points clear, the other three teams all sit on four points in the race for second. The Egyptians’ fate is still very much in their own hands, especially as both games will be held in Cairo, as Mosimane was at pains to point out.

“There is no alternative to winning against Al-Merrikh and Al Hilal and we certainly will not look back and I hope that we will play in front of as many fans as possible in future matches,” he said.

There are more big games to come this month for both Al-Ahly and the national team. By the end of March, there could be smiles back on the faces of fans but if not, an already tumultuous 2022 will be looking very dismal indeed.

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