Preview: Egypt’s Ahly, Zamalek eyeing top-place finish in Confed Cup group stage

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Title-holders Al-Ahly, Zamalek, Orlando Pirates and Etoile Sahel have reached the CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals, but there is still a lot at stake in the final group games this weekend.

Arch Egyptian rivals Ahly and Zamalek go into matchday 6 as the mini-league leaders with Etoile of Tunisia and Pirates of South Africa in very close proximity.

Finishing the group stage on top of the table gives a club a theoretically easier semi-final because they play the runners-up in the other section.

Ahly, whose Confederation Cup triumph last season was the first by a club from the North African state, are ahead of 2006 title-holders Etoile in Group A only on goal difference.

Both enjoy home advantage Saturday with Ahly playing Stade Malien of Mali in Suez and Etoile meeting Esperance of Tunisia in Mediterranean resort Sousse.

Ahly held Stade 0-0 in Bamako and Etoile edged Esperance 1-0 in Tunis, and the semi-finalists will be favoured to collect maximum points in the reverse fixtures.

The leaders have 10 points each from five matches and cannot be separated by head-to-head records with each having won 1-0 at home against the other.

Given that the Egyptians have a plus-four goal difference and the Tunisians a plus-two difference, Ahly seem likelier to top the final standings and face the Group B runners-up.

While most pundits believe Ahly desperately want to avoid rejuvenated fellow Cairo club Zamalek in the semi-finals, Ahly coach Fathi Mabrouk insists he has no preference.

“Our aim is to defeat Stade Malien this weekend, win the group, and then concentrate on who we play for a place in the final,” he stressed.

“Stade should not be underestimated as they are our only group opponents this season that we have not managed to defeat.

“We want to retain the Confederation Cup and to do so we must be prepared to face any club in the semi-finals.

Mabrouk says Ghana-born striker John Antwi, scorer of the matchday 5 winner at Esperance, will miss the Malien match at a military stadium 135 kilometres east of Cairo due to an ankle injury.

Midfielders Hossam Ghaly and Saleh Gomaa are also ruled out by injuries and full-back Bassem Ali is suspended, the coach added.

Zamalek and Pirates have 12 points each in Group B with the Egyptians ahead on head-to-head records having come from behind to triumph 2-1 in South Africa a couple of months ago.

So, only a win will do if Pirates are to achieve the goal of coach and former national team midfielder Eric Tinkler and finish as group winners.

Tinkler, an ‘enforcer’ in the South Africa 1996 Africa Cup of Nations-winning team, wants to play away first in the semi-finals.

“We are unbeaten away in five Confederation Cup matches this season and playing the first leg of a semi-final away would give us a psychological advantage over whoever we meet,” he explained.

To succeed in Cairo, Pirates must shackle Zamalek sharpshooter Bassem Morsy, whose hat-trick last weekend triggered a 5-1 Cup of Nations qualifying victory for Egypt in Chad.

Another Pharaoh who scored in N’Djamena, young midfielder Kahraba, real name Mahmoud Abdel Moneim, also plays for Zamalek.

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