Football Features

Al Ahly Club World Cup team preview: The Real Madrid of African football

By Mohamed Moallim

Al Ahly Club World Cup team preview: The Real Madrid of African football

Published: 17:30, 2 February 2022 | Updated: 17:34, 7 February 2022

Since their founding over a century ago, Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly have established themselves as Africa’s pre-eminent football club. In the United Arab Emirates, they will seek to make even more history.

Under the exemplary leadership of South African coach Pitso Mosimane, the Cairo-based club secured a record-extending tenth CAF Champions League title — and back-to-back crowns under Mosimane’s watch — guaranteeing them a seventh bite of the cherry at Fifa’s upcoming Club World Cup.

Al Ahly enter the competition’s 18th edition in the second-round phase and have been drawn against Concacaf Champions League winners Monterrey. Get past their Mexican opponents, and a semi-final berth with Copa Libertadores champions Palmeiras awaits.

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Five things to know about Africa’s most decorated club…

  • With 24 continental titles, Al Ahly are the most successful football club in African history; the club’s international trophy collection is the second largest in world football, behind only Real Madrid (26) according to the Rec.Sport.Soccer Statistics Foundation (RSSSF).
  • Al Ahly will set a new record as the team to play the most Club World Cup games by making their 16th tournament appearance vs Mexico’s Monterrey on February 5.
  • Last time out in Qatar 2020, the Red Devils won bronze after beating Palmeiras on penalties in the play-offs, having lost 2-0 to a Robert Lewandowski-inspired Bayern Munich in the semis. To date, the only other African sides to reach the final are TP Mazembe and Raja Casablanca, with both falling just short in 2010 and 2013 respectively.
  • A who’s who of Egyptian greats have turned out for Al Ahly including Ahmed Fathy, Hossam Ghaly, Mohamed Aboutrika, Essam El Hadary, Mahmoud El Khatib (now club president) and Wael Gomaa.
  • Al Ahly were named ‘Club of the 20th Century’ by their continental federation.

More on the Club World Cup

Al Ahly’s best player?

No fewer than eight Al Ahly players were selected to represent their nation at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations with six in Egypt’s side. Among those is forward Mohamed Sherif, who finished as top scorer in the 2020/21 CAF Champions League. The 25-year-old marksman netted six times including opening the scoring as they claimed a 3-0 success against Kaizer Chiefs in the Casablanca final.

In turn, he became the first Al Ahly player to achieve this distinction after legendary attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, who managed to net eight in their successful 2006 campaign. Sherif, who joined Al Ahly from Wadi Degla in 2018, also collected the 2020/21 Egyptian Premier League Golden Boot. He would successfully find the net on 21 occasions through 31 appearances.

Who is Al Ahly’s manager?

Hiring a foreign coach is not a new phenomenon for Al Ahly, who in the past have appointed the likes of Don Revie, Manuel José and Martin Jol. But appointing a manager born in another African nation was unprecedented until South African-born Pitso Mosimane succeeded René Weiler in 2019.

The former Mamelodi Sundowns manager — who also briefly took charge of his national team — has been nothing short of a success. Mosimane was a CAF Champions League winner as the Sundowns boss and has since added two more of those continental prizes to his résumé.

Achieving the feat in back-to-back seasons puts him in some illustrious company. Since the competition’s inception in 1965, only Célestin Tambwe Laye (TP Mazembe), Oscar Fullone (ASEC Abidjan and Raja Casablanca), Manuel Jose (Al Ahly) and Moïne Chaâbani (Espérance Tunis) have achieved this feat.

Even more impressive is the fact these triumphs came during an eyebrow-raising eight-month stretch in which Mosimane was omitted from The Best FIFA Men’s Coach 2021 shortlist.

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That unfortunate snub was superseded by reports of tension between him and the club’s board following public statements regarding his contract, in which former Al Ahly player said: “Al Ahly are angry at Mosimane after his recent statements in the press conference that followed the Arab Contractors match, when he revealed all the details of his negotiations with the board regarding his contract negotiations

“The Al Ahly board discussed the crisis in their last meeting, and it was decided to remain silent and postpone the decision to extend Mosimane’s contract until after the Club World Cup.

“Mosimane is against this idea and is putting pressure on the board to make the decision as he has other offers and hopes to make a decision soon.”

However, on the eve of Al Ahly’s entry into the CWC, Mosimane looked to ease tensions by confirming his desire to stay with the club – though he won’t actually be on the sidelines for their first game after testing positive for covid.

“Mahmoud El-Khatib [Al Ahly’s president] did something unexpected after many European coaches in Al Ahly, went to a coach in South Africa,” he told MBC Egypt.

“He told me that you could change the history of Al Ahly. Not many people knew me, they knew me from playing against Ahly and Zamalek [with Sundowns].

“But I don’t come with a big European CV, but they knew I won the CAF Super Cup, Champions League and went to the Club World Cup.

“He took a very big risk on me, he rewarded me and gave me a big opportunity and that’s why I’m still here. I know there were talks, but I’m here and I will be here and I will stay here.

“So I’m humbled to be able to coach a big team. I want to leave small footprints after the big footprints that Manuel Jose left at the club.”

How will Al Ahly line up?

By the end of 2021, which saw Al Ahly lift the CAF Super Cup at Raja Casablanca’s expense, their incumbent head coach Mosimane had presided over 74 matches in all competitions.

Not only does he possess a healthy win percentage, but the South African tactician has gone through no fewer than five different formations since arriving, with 4-2-3-1 being the most popular. However, Mosimane has recently switched to a back-three, with the expectation that his 3-4-3 phase will continue into the Club World Cup finals.

As touched upon, several of Al Ahly’s players remain on international duty. Given the progress Egypt made they will not be available to face Monterrey, but they can link up with the rest of Mosimane’s squad ahead of a potential semi-final against Palmeiras on February 8 or a fifth-placed playoff on February 9.

That being said, there are pros and cons when it comes to this system. Most notably, Al Ahly can dominate possession but consequently must cede large swathes of space for the opposition to exploit on the counterattack.

So far it’s a winning strategy. Across the eight times Mosimane has gone with a 3-4-2-1 (three games) or 3-4-3 (five games), they’ve picked up six wins. The other two occasions ended in a stalemates, including that aforementioned success over Raja Casablanca where Taher Mohamed scored a 90th-minute equaliser to send the game to extra-time.

In the other matches ending after regular time, Mosimane’s side scored 20 goals while conceding eight.

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