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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - It does not get much bigger than this for Arab football fans as well as those in Asia and Africa. Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia take on Egypt’s Al-Ahly in Jeddah on Friday. The prize for the winner is a FIFA Club World Cup semifinal against Fluminense of Brazil and a lot more besides as two of the biggest Arab clubs meet on the global stage.
Any Saudi Arabia and Egyptian clash, the two major powers of the region, as well as Asia and Africa in a competitive setting, is special — though Asia has a better head-to-head record at the World Cup, winning 12 of 19 meetings.
On the one hand, Al-Ahly have much more recent experience at this level as this is their fourth appearance in a row. It is 18 years since Al-Ittihad were last at the Club World Cup. In fact, the last game they won at this tournament was against Al-Ahly back in 2005.
Now however, the Tigers, who beat Auckland City 3-0 on Tuesday, have players with plenty of experience on this stage. Striker Karim Benzema has won this competition five times while N’Golo Kante and Fabinho have also lifted the trophy with Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. Now they are in the yellow and black of Al-Ittihad and will relish this occasion. Such talent means that, along with home advantage, Al-Ittihad are regarded as favorites.
“We are happy with the result in the Auckland match, and let’s see what happens against Al-Ahly,” said Benzema. “It will be difficult, as all teams want to win the championship, but we are ready to fight until the end.”
“The Al-Ittihad fans and the atmosphere were amazing. We already know their passion. They motivate us and this is a good thing.”
But Al-Ahly will have plenty of support at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium too. They also have the pedigree of a team that have been champions of Africa no less than 11 times. They really are their continent’s version of Real Madrid and have had memorable clashes with Saudi Arabian sides.
Back in 2005, the champions of Asia and Africa met with a very talented Al-Ittihad team winning 1-0 thanks to Mohammed Noor’s late goal. This was a version of the Tigers that had been dominant just a few weeks before in winning the Asian Champions League for a second successive time.
Al-Ittihad have not been back since but Al-Ahly are regular visitors. In 2012, they beat Sanfrecce Hiroshima of Japan to reach the last four as they lost 1-0 to eventual winners Corinthians of Brazil. Eight years later, the Red Giants were back and finished third after getting past Palmeiras.
The Brazilians got their revenge in 2021 but Al-Ahly enjoyed their third-placed match against Al-Hilal, defeating the Riyadh giants 4-0 in what was a traumatic afternoon for the Saudi Arabians and the last in charge of Al-Hilal by Leonardo Jardim. And in the last edition just a few months ago, the Cairo club fell to Real Madrid and then Flamengo.
Friday’s game will define how this edition goes. Both Al-Ahly and Al-Ittihad are champions of their respective countries and neither have hit those same heights yet this season. Al-Ahly are in a better position and sit in second after six games and given the fact they have been Egyptian champions 43 times, they are expected to pull through, unlike Al-Ittihad who would need a special effort to get back in the race with Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr.
Al-Ahly always have a healthy contingent of the Egypt national team with veteran goalkeeper Mohamed El-Shenawy a mainstay of both club and country. Then there are defenders Mohamed Abdelmonem, Mohamed Hany and Yasser Ibrahim. Midfielders Marwan Attia and Emam Ashour and Hussein El-Shahat, who will make a record 13th appearance in the Club World Cup if he plays, in attack.
If the domestic contingent is solid then South African striker Percy Tau has been in excellent form this season. Veteran French forward Anthony Modeste has played for a host of top tier European clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, Koln and Bordeaux, though he is battling to return to fitness and may start on the bench.
After the club went through three coaches in the space of three months in the summer of 2022, Marcel Koller has stabilized the situation through doing what Al-Ahly always demands — winning.
This is one of the most successful teams in the world, the biggest team in Africa and an Arabian institution. Now they come up against Al-Ittihad, the Saudi Arabian champions playing in front of a huge home crowd with players with experience of winning the trophy and a new coach in Marcelo Gallardo hoping to make his mark.
It promises to be a titanic struggle and one that the world will be watching.
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