Cairo – Egyptian football club Al-Ahly must shrug off dismal domestic form if they are to win a record-extending sixth Caf Super Cup title on Thursday.
The Red Devils host Tunisians CS Sfaxien at the 75,000-seat Cairo Stadium in an annual one-off match-up between the Champions League and Confederation Cup holders.
Ordinarily, Ahly would be firm favourites to embellish a Super Cup record of five victories and one defeat, while two previous appearances by Sfaxien ended in losses.
But these are not normal times for the eight-time African champions with a national league loss at El-Gouna last weekend the third in nine outings.
Many Egyptians must be rubbing eyes in disbelief as they study the Group A championship table and see Ahly only third behind unfashionable Smouha and Arab Contractors.
El-Gouna are just two points off the bottom while the other defeats came against Contractors and El-Daklyeh, another lower-half side.
However, embattled coach Mohamed Youssef believes the importance of the Super Cup can rejuvenate a team struggling to overcome injuries and retirements.
“Playing a quality team like Sfaxien should help my players regain confidence,” the 43-year-old former Ahly and Egypt defender told the club website.
Youssef, who replaced Libya-bound compatriot Hossam El-Badry last year, brushed aside media calls for his resignation.
“I have no intention of abandoning Ahly. There are problems and I am going to fix them,” he pledged. “My players must forget El-Gouna and concentrate on Sfaxien.”
The retirement in December of midfield conductor Mohamed Abou Trika Äone of the greatest footballers produced by Egypt deprived Youssef of an inspirational influence.
But there was encouragement ahead of the Sfaxien clash with injury-prone striker Emad Moteab, who turns 31 on the day of the match, declared fit after a hamstring lay-off.
Another boost came from the Egyptian authorities, who have waived a security-linked spectator ban imposed on most football fixtures and the organisers are hoping for a 30,000 crowd.
While Ahly struggle, Sfaxien are third in the 16-team Tunisian title race, seven points adrift of twice Champions League winners Esperance with 11 rounds left.
Sfaxien edged visiting LPS Tozeur 1-0 last weekend, but victory came at a price with a self-inflicted injury preventing Gabonese midfielder Ibrahim Ndong facing Ahly.
Angry at being substituted by recently appointed coach Hamadi Daou, teenager Ndong kicked an advertising board and fractured a leg.
“We appreciate the status of the Super Cup and are determined to play without pressure. Sfaxien are a big team and our mission is to prove that by defeating Ahly,” said Daou.
Youssef led Ahly to a 3-1 overall victory against South Africans Orlando Pirates in November with a draw in Soweto followed by a two-goal Cairo triumph.
Former Dutch star Ruud Krol steered Sfaxien to success over Democratic Republic of Congo outfit TP Mazembe in the second-tier Confederation Cup.
The Tunisians surrendered a 2-0 first-leg advantage before half-time in Lubumbashi only for Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to grab a crucial away goal with the final seemingly destined for penalties. – Sapa-AFP