The National Football League kicked off with lots of surprises.
As has been expected, the beginning of the 2007/2008 version of the National Soccer League was suspenseful. While the competition between the top three clubs — Ahli, Zamalek and Ismaili — in the 2006/2007 season reached its peak by the final stages of the tournament, the first stage of the new season heralded a breathtaking competition that will keep fans on their feet.
The excitement kicked off earlier on August 8th when Ahli managed to snatch the Egyptian Super Cup from the formidable Ismaili, having won 4-2 after the regular time ended 1-1. It was the third time in a row that Ahli lifts the Super Cup. The game proved again that the competition in the new season will be like the previous one.
Few days later, in the coastal city stadium of Port Said the defending champions Ahli commenced the daunting mission of maintaining the league title for the fourth time in a row. Facing Misri — the club that spent more than LE20 million to sign new players — was not an easy task for the Red Devils. Misri players proved that the money the club board spent on signing them was well deserved.
Having come down from a 1-0 defeat in the beginning of the game, they managed to take the lead by netting two goals. However, illustrious midfielder Mohamed Abu Treika sent a tantalizing header from a difficult position to bring the game to a 2-2 draw.
Ahli might have lost the first two points in its run for the fourth consecutive league title, but critics opine that big teams reserve their strength till the decisive stages of the competition.
The news of Ahli’s draw in Port Said prompted Zamalek and Ismaili to fight for their first three points during their encounter in Cairo later on the same day. Given that the two teams experienced similar difficult circumstances before the beginning of the season, the game was beyond expectations. Zamalek’s former French head coach Henry Michel quit after the team finished its training camp in France a few days before the start of the league. Having furnished no reasons, Michel’s sudden departure was a death blow to Zamalek’s board which decided to resort to its former Dutch coach Ruud Krol.
Ismaili, on the other side went through the same ordeal. Its French head coach Patrice Nevue decided not to return from his vacation to lead the team in preparation for the new season. The club’s board quickly signed veteran coach Taha Besri who took over the responsibility starting from the Zamalek encounter.
Ismaili gave a convincing performance during the first half, while Zamalek improved in the second. However, Ismaili’s Iraqi import Mustafa Kareem pulled the wool over Zamalek defenders’ eyes, netting the ball in critical timing to put his team in the lead.
Desperate attempts by Zamalek players, especially their 33-year-old captain Hazem Imam, didn’t pay off. Consequently, angry Zamalek fans couldn’t believe that their team lost their first game like they did last year. As a result, they hurled insults on the team’s veteran players, asking Imam to hang up his shoes. Imam, in a moment of despair, nodded for them that he would not continue.
Ismaili’s win, as a matter of fact, came to end a five-year supremacy of Zamalek over Ismaili (Ismaili has not defeated Zamalek since 2002 when the former punished the latter 4-3 in Cairo). The defeat, in fact, left the white jerseys in ruins. Unless the club rearranges its ranks quickly, it would be too late for them to keep up with the tough competition.
Other matches proved that the competition among the rest of the clubs would not be easy this season. Tersana, which escaped relegation last year, edged oil company team Petrojet 3-1 to take the lead of the standings in the first stage. Despite the fact that Petrojet ended in the eighth place last season, Tersana, under the leadership of veteran coach Farouk Gaafar, seems vying to be the black horse of the tournament.
The newly promoted Baladeya succeeded in defeating the Arab Contractors 3-2, to take the second position in the standings. Ghazl Mahalla also punished oil company team Enppi 3-2. Ittihad of Alexandria drew 0-0 with the Coastal Guards; Aluminium defeated Egypt Telecom 1-0; and the Army edged Suez Cement 1-0.
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By Mohamed El-Sayed