After the disappointment of the African Cup of Nations, Egyptian football fans will now turn their attention to the climax of the Premier League which is set to reach its thrilling climax before the end of the month.
It has been a strange six weeks for Egypt fans. When the Premier League was suspended for AFCON, two thirds of the 18 man division had already completed their fixtures for the season, with the relegation places long decided. Nogoon, El Dakhleya and Petrojet have already played all their fixtures, and will be playing in the Second Division nest season; in their place, Aswan, FC Masr and Tanta have been promoted and will compete in the Premier League next season. However, the destiny of the title still remained undecided, with Al Ahly and Zamalek battling for the title.
Meanwhile, attention switched to AFCON where, as hosts, Egypt were expected to win their eighth title in front of their passionate home supporters. Yet, after cantering through the Group stage, they were shocked in the round of 16 by South Africa and were dumped out of the tournament, prompting a huge public backlash, the resignation of the country’s Football Association, and dismissal of manager Javier Aguirre and his entire coaching staff.
Having had to sit back whilst Algeria and Senegal went on to contest the final in their place, local fans will be glad to turn their attention back to the domestic agenda after the communal bloodletting that followed the defeat of the national side.
Play gets underway again in Sunday with the visit of Zamalek to El Gouna FC. Zamalek, who last won the league title in 2015, are currently third in the table, but despite that, are the only team that can catch Al Ahly at the top. That is because the team that currently sits second in the standings, Pyramid, have completed all their matches and cannot improve on their final total of 70 points. Zamalek, meanwhile, are playing a side with have nothing left to play for this season, having escaped relegation, and guaranteed themselves another season in the top flight.
A win for Zamalek would narrow the gap to Al Ahly to three points, and both teams would then have two matches left to play. Crucially, it would also give them an advantage when it comes to goal difference. Currently, both teams share a goal difference of Plus 33 – a big win against Gouna could yet prove decisive.
Meanwhile Al Ahly, who have been at a training camp in Spain, are confident that they can retain the title that they have won for the past three years. The most successful team in Egyptian football history, they are looking for their 41st league title in all.
They themselves are back in action next Wednesday, when they travel to face El Mokawloon in a Cairo derby, although the home side have little to play for, except local pride, as they are guaranteed to finish fifth in the table, whatever the outcome.
That same night, Zamalek will host Ismaily, who are currently seventh in the table, and have an outside chance of finishing above Misr El-Makasa. However, to do so they would not only have to beat Zamalek, but would need to do so by three clear goals due to an inferior goal difference.
The likelihood instead is that both Al Ahly and Zamalek will win their matches next Wednesday, setting the scene for a suitable climax, with both teams set to meet each other on Sunday, 28th July, when Al Ahly will be the de facto hosts. That is in spite of the fact that the match has been moved to the Borg El-Arab Stadium in Alexandria, some 220 kilometres – two and a half hours drive – from Cairo.
The match will see the resumption of one of the most bitter and fierce rivalries, not only in terms of Egypt, but in the whole of African football, with both sharing the same home venue, the 75,000 seater Cairo International Stadium. The fixture has been played over 150 times, and has a long and chequered past, with previous matches marred by violent clashes between opposing fans and the police, and even its fair share of fatalities. The current authoritarian regime has taken measures to curb the access to football matches of the most extreme elements of the fan groups of both sides – the so-called “Ultras” – but the underlying threats to public order remain, and security will be tight for this season closer, although it has not yet been announced how many fans will be allowed to watch the game in person.
Much may depend on who is chosen to referee the encounter, and whether the Egyptian football authorities decide to ask foreign officials to take charge of the game. Many local referees have refused in the past to officiate in the fixture because of the threats made against them and their families.
The two teams have met already this season at the end of March, when Zamalek were notionally the home team. That ended in a goalless draw in a match littered with yellow cards, with few chances for either side. However, the game itself was played in a surreal atmosphere, with just 30 fans, 15 from each side, allowed into the stadium.
For this encounter, both teams are likely to be at full strength, with all the international players that were involved in the African Cup of Nations recalled and available for selection.
Advantage lies with Al Ahly. Not only do they have the points already in the bank but, assuming that both sides win their outstanding matches, they can go into the fixture knowing that they only need a draw to clinch the league title. For their part, Zamalek could still emerge champions if they manage to secure a narrow win, having outscored El Ahly in their game in hand against El Gouna. It promises to be an edge of the seats encounter.
Whatever happens on July 27th, Egyptian football fans and supporters of both teams will not have long to wait until the two sides face each other again. The two are scheduled to contest the Egyptian Super Cup on September 18th.You can watch the exciting Egyptian Premiere League games exclusively on ON Sport in Arabic and in HD when you subscribe to the Arabic Mosaic Pack here!