Surprise side Leopards seek scalp of Zamalek from Egypt
JOHANNESBURG - Agence France-Presse
Zamalek’s Hany Saied (L) fights for the ball against derby rivals Al-Ahly’s El Sayed Hamdy during their CAF Champions League match at El-Gouna stadium in Hurghada on July 24, 2013. REUTERS photoSurprise side AC Leopards want to build on a good start to the CAF Champions League group stage when they host Zamalek this weekend.
A mix of defensive resilience and some luck enabled the Congo-Brazzaville club to leave Soweto with a 0-0 draw against Orlando Pirates two weeks ago.
Zamalek also opened with a draw in Group A, Ahmed Gaafar giving them the lead in a 1-1 stalemate against fellow Egyptians Al-Ahly. David-versus-Goliath clashes do not come more appealing than this pairing at the Stade Denis Sassou N’Gessou in western city Dolisie.
Leopards are competing in the leading African club football competition for the first time this year, and ousted some big names en route to the last eight.
The Congolese, who were playing second division domestic football just four years ago, edged Kano Pillars of Nigeria despite a 4-1 away loss.
And they held their nerve in Algeria to pip former champions Entente Setif on penalties after another 4-4 aggregate deadlock.
Leopards turned the form book on its head last year to win the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup without a big-name player.
But as Pirates discovered on a freezing night, Cameroon coach Joseph Omog has developed Leopards into a fit, well-drilled outfit.
“We did okay in South Africa to force a draw, but my side is capable of much better,” warned the experienced handler.
At home, they will look to captain Rudy Guelord Bhebey Ndey for goals and much is also expected of two-metre Malian Arouna Drame.
Zamalek have lifted the Champions League trophy five times -- a record bettered only by Cairo neighbours and fierce rivals Ahly.
The ‘White Knights’ are looking to improve on a disastrous group showing last year when they failed to win in six outings.
However, long-serving goalkeeper Abdel Wahed El-Sayed, 36, acknowledges the threat posed by Leopards at their compact 20,000-seat fortress.
“This is not going to be an easy game with Leopards playing at home and backed by a capacity, partisan crowd,” he told reporters. “Qualifying for the group stage at the first attempt is a great achievement and we must not underestimate them.”
A blow to Zamalek was the recent departure of Burkinabe striker Ahmed Cisse, leaving four-goal Gaafar to spearhead the pursuit of goals.
Tradition favors Leopards with 14 victories from 16 home CAF games while Zamalek last won a group game on the road eight years ago.
Unhappy defending champions Ahly must face Pirates in El-Gouna, a Red Sea resort 450 kilometres from their Cairo base.
After the recent ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian authorities are not prepared to stage football games in the capital city for security reasons.
Ahly failed in a bid to have the fixture delayed five days to August 9, when the dawn-to-dusk fasting of Muslim holy period Ramadan will be over.
The ‘Red Devils’ also wanted a night kick-off to avoid a heatwave gripping the country, but must tackle the Pirates in late afternoon because the floodlights are inadequate.
Pirates’ old failing of poor finishing cost them two precious points against Leopards with new signing Lennox Bacela the chief culprit.
They are unlikely to get many chances against an Ahly rearguard marshalled by veteran centre-back Wael Gomaa.
It is hard to foresee any result other than an Ahly victory as they boast a 23-match unbeaten home run in the group phase.
Group B favorites Esperance of Tunisia, winners once and runners-up twice in the previous three finals, host Coton Sport of Cameroon.
A match between Sewe San Pedro of Ivory Coast and Libolo in Abidjan completes the weekend schedule.