Egyptian football club Al-Ahly must shrug off dismal domestic form if they are to win a record-extending sixth CAF Super Cup title on Thursday.
The ‘Red Devils’ host Tunisians CS Sfaxien at the 75,000-seat Cairo Stadium in an annual one-off match-up between the Champions League and Confederation Cup holders.
Ordinarily, Ahly would be firm favourites to embellish a Super Cup record of five victories and one defeat, while two previous appearances by Sfaxien ended in losses.
But these are not normal times for the eight-time African champions with a national league loss at El-Gouna last weekend the third in nine outings.
Many Egyptians must be rubbing eyes in disbelief as they study the Group A championship table and see Ahly only third behind unfashionable Smouha and Arab Contractors.
El-Gouna are just two points off the bottom while the other defeats came against Contractors and El-Daklyeh, another lower-half side.
However, embattled coach Mohamed Youssef believes the importance of the Super Cup can rejuvenate a team struggling to overcome injuries and retirements.
“Playing a quality team like Sfaxien should help my players regain confidence,” the 43-year-old former Ahly and Egypt defender told the club website.
Youssef, who replaced Libya-bound compatriot Hossam El-Badry last year, brushed aside media calls for his resignation.
“I have no intention of abandoning Ahly. There are problems and I am going to fix them,” he pledged. “My players must forget El-Gouna and concentrate on Sfaxien.”
The retirement last December of midfield conductor Mohamed Abou Trika –one of the greatest footballers produced by Egypt — deprived Youssef of an inspirational influence.
But there was encouragement ahead of the Sfaxien clash with injury-prone striker Emad Moteab, who turns 31 on the day of the match, declared fit after a hamstring lay-off.
Another boost came from the Egyptian authorities, who have waived a security-linked spectator ban imposed on most football fixtures and the organisers are hoping for a 30 000 crowd.
While Ahly struggle, Sfaxien are third in the 16-team Tunisian title race, seven points adrift of twice Champions League winners Esperance with 11 rounds left.
Sfaxien edged visiting LPS Tozeur 1-0 last weekend, but victory came at a price with a self-inflicted injury preventing Gabonese midfielder Ibrahim Ndong facing Ahly.
Angry at being substituted by recently appointed coach Hamadi Daou, teenager Ndong kicked an advertising board and fractured a leg.
“We appreciate the status of the Super Cup and are determined to play without pressure. Sfaxien are a big team and our mission is to prove that by defeating Ahly,” said Daou.
Youssef led Ahly to a 3-1 overall victory against South Africans Orlando Pirates last November with a draw in Soweto followed by a two-goal Cairo triumph.
Former Dutch star Ruud Krol steered Sfaxien to success over Democratic Republic of Congo outfit TP Mazembe in the second-tier Confederation Cup.
The Tunisians surrendered a 2-0 first-leg advantage before half-time in Lubumbashi only for Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to grab a crucial away goal with the final seemingly destined for penalties.