It has been four years since Ahly, Egypt and Africa’s most successful outfit, last lifted the Champions League trophy or reached the semi-final, a disappointing run by their own high standards.
The Red Devils are on course to win a ninth domestic league title in 10 seasons but they can hardly be satisfied with this record unless they go all the way in the lucrative Champions League, a competition which they won a record eight times.
They made it clear their priority is to conquer Africa and make up for the disappointments of the last three years, which saw them fail to go beyond the group stage, at times suffering stunning early eliminations.
They open their group-stage campaign this year on Saturday, hosting Zambia’s Zanaco whose best achievement was reaching the last 16 in 2010 when that round was a two-legged knockout tie.
In a new format, the 16 teams are drawn into four groups this year. The top two in each group will qualify for the quarter-finals.
Ahly, who like all Egyptian teams are deprived of fan support in domestic matches due to a long-standing crowd ban, will be boosted by the support of their passionate fans at Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab Stadium.
“Our fans are the cornerstone of success. They are the source of motivation for the players and technical staff to win titles,” Ahly coach Hossam El-Badry said on the club’s official website.
El-Badry, who is in his third spell with the Red Devils, led them to the Champions League title in 2012 with an impressive 3-2 aggregate win over Tunisia’s Esperance that included a 2-1 win on the road in the second leg.
He has acquired a lot of know-how on winning Africa’s premier club competition, having been also part of Manuel Jose’s backroom staff in a hugely successful era for Ahly which saw them reach the final four straight years, winning the title three times in 2005, 2006 and 2008.
“We are taking it one step at a time. Our immediate target is to reach the quarter-final,” added El-Badry.
“There will be strong competition, especially with this new system. I’m not concerned with our hectic schedule in domestic and African competitions because my players have the sufficient experience to deal with that.”
Ahly’s current crop of players is far less glamorous than the so-called golden generation of Portuguese coach Manuel Jose, but the team are still likely to get the job done against Zanaco.
However, the Zambians are adamant they are capable of matching their illustrious opponents in Alexandria.
“We are facing an experienced side in Ahly. They are a good side but we are equal to the task,” Zanaco coach Mumamba Numba was quoted as saying by Zambian media.
“We want to win all our games, especially when we are playing at home. We will be very happy if we can come back from Egypt with something in our hands.”
Ahly will play with a makeshift defence due to the absence of regular duo Ahmed Hegazy and Saad Samir. Newly-arrived winger Ahmed Hamoudi is also out due to injury.
Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca and Cameroon’s Coton Sport clash in the other Group D clash on Sunday.
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