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5 things to look out for as Saudi Pro League returns to action


Once again, the UEFA Champions League semifinals have provided high levels of drama and excitement, with Real Madrid’s almost unbelievable late heroics against Manchester City on Wednesday coming 24 hours after Villarreal gave Liverpool a mighty scare.

Now it remains to be seen if Africa’s last four can provide similar entertainment in the coming days, starting with the first legs on Saturday.

If there is an African version of Real Madrid then it is Al-Ahly, and the Egyptian powerhouse will meet ES Setif of Algeria on Saturday.

While the team from Cairo cannot quite match Madrid’s 13 continental titles, they are by far the most successful in their own region, with an impressive 10 CAF Champions League wins. Like Los Blancos, the Red Giants love international competition and are also on course for a third successive win.

Like Madrid, they do not always make it easy, but usually find a way to find a way. Al-Ahly came second in their group and back-to-back defeats at the hands of Mamelodi Sundowns put progression in doubt before wins against Sudanese opposition in the last two games. It was followed by a tight 3-2 aggregate win over Raja Casablanca at the quarterfinal stage. 

There are differences between the most successful African and European clubs, however. Real Madrid have already sewn up the Spanish title, but for the second season in succession, continental exertions are having an effect at home. Two draws and a defeat in the last three league games have seen Al-Ahly fall eight points behind city rivals Zamalek. They may have three games in hand, but it is starting to remind of last year when the Reds had too many commitments overseas and, in the end, were unable to close the domestic gap. 

Coach Pitso Mosimane has come in for some criticism. Former Al-Ahly star Ahmed Koshary said after the latest league setback, a 1-1 draw with Ceramica Cleopatra, that “the players are not showing team spirit, which is something we are not used to at Al-Ahly.”

He added: “Some starting 11 players don’t even deserve to be at the club. Right now, we look like a small club. Al-Ahly need to take a stand; there are many problems, not just wasting chances.”

Taha Ismail is another club legend unhappy with what he is seeing. “The team is suffering on the physical level, the build-up is extremely slow, and the counterattacks are very slow as well. The performance is disappointing and it doesn’t show the club’s spirit.”

Mosimane took the job in September 2020 and led the club to back-to-back Champions League wins, as well as third place at the FIFA Club World Cup this year, but it is far from the first time that he has been criticized by former players. 

“We are having difficulties scoring goals,” the South African said on Saturday. “It’s easy to just say we don’t score goals, which is true, but you have to analyze everything. I understand that we are losing points we should get, and I agree with that. Also, good criticism is a source of motivation to me and my players. And if you’re worried about other people winning the league, don’t worry, we’ll beat those people.”

Beating ES Setif is the priority with the first leg in Cairo on Saturday and the return match in Algiers a week later. The 2014 champions, sitting in mid-table at home, have not exactly set the tournament  alight so far, winning three and losing three in the group stage and winning the quarterfinal against Esperance de Tunis 1-0 on aggregate.

On the face of it, this is not going to be a high-scoring battle between two talented attacking outfits like Manchester City and Real Madrid. Setif have scored just seven goals in eight games so far, but then you never know. Al-Ahly will be without the injured midfielder Akram Tawfik and Moroccan center-back Badr Benoun, while the Algerians are without their own center-back Hocine Laribi, who was injured against in the previous round’s win over Tunis. 

If Setif’s game against the defending champions looks tight, the other last-four encounter offers a greater possibility of a European-style epic semifinal, as Wydad take on Luanda.

The Moroccan league leaders were top scorers in the group stage with 15 goals and Petro were the fourth-highest with nine. The Angolans, with tournament top scorer Tiago Azulao, are not just there to make up the numbers in an Arabian-dominated knockout stage. They defeated Mamelodi Sundowns 3-2 in the quarters, knocking out the South African giants who were the best-performing team in the group stage, finishing six points above Al-Ahly.

Meanwhile, the men from Casablanca edged out CR Belouizdad of Algeria, scoring the only goal in 180 minutes of football.

The two met in the group stage. Luanda won the first meeting 2-1, but lost the return 5-1, though by that time both teams had already booked their places in the knockout stages. There should be goals, especially as Petro defender Diogenes Joao is an injury doubt. Wydad will miss their Libyan winger Muaid Ellafi.

It remains to be seen if there are European levels of excitement on display, but one thing is for sure: Like Real Madrid, Al-Ahly can never be counted out on the international stage.



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