Wales spoil Ukrainian dreams to reach first World Cup in 64 years

It is less than four months since the biggest Arab club in Africa, Al-Ahly, defeated the biggest Arab club in Asia, Al-Hilal, 4-0 in the third-placed game at the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Within 48 hours, the Saudi Arabians, bristling at the humiliation imposed on the world stage by their fellow Arab giants, fired coach Leonardo Jardim.

Now, the coaching situations of the teams from the capitals of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are once again up in the air, but this time the pressure is on Al-Ahly’s boss.

Pitso Mosimane has been at the storied club since September 2020, though it feels longer. The South African won two CAF Champions League titles but last weekend lost in the final 2-0 against Wydad AC in Casablanca, and thereby lost the chance to become the first coach to win three in a row and just the second to win four in total. Some feel that he may lose his job before too long.

He is the first ever Al-Ahly coach to come from elsewhere in Africa and, despite the continental success, has had to deal with criticism from past players throughout his time. As early as February 2021, he told Arab News: “There will always be legends who played here who feel that you took the opportunity and say: ‘Why him and not us?’

“It is normal for ex-players to give their opinion. They played here and I did not, so you have to respect that. This is an opportunity, but the team asked for me — I did not apply.

“They had not won the Champions League for years but believed I could win it for them, and we won it thanks to the players, the fans and the club. I have the support of the club, and if others think they could do better, then they can have that opinion.”

Last week, Mosimane said something similar. “They are legends, they have the right to say anything about their team. I’ve been here 18 months and I saw two CAF Champions League trophies and two Super Cup trophies. I’ve seen the league and the cup and I’ve seen two bronze medals in the Club World Cup. If it’s not good enough, I understand, maybe somebody else can do better,” he said.

Some former players believe that to be the case. Taha Ismail said that it was time for the man known as “Jingles” to be given his marching orders. In April, Wael Gomaa criticized the coach’s game management and said that he made Al-Ahly look like a small club. Such sentiments were echoed by Samir Kamouna, another former player.

“The board at Al-Ahly will decide about Mosimane’s future,” he said in television appearance. “In my opinion, he is no longer fit for the position.”

Regardless of his opinion, Kamouna has predicted that if Al-Ahly lose to bitter Cairo rivals Zamalek on June 19, then the former Mamelodi Sundowns coach will be on his way out.

“Al-Ahly are not doing well and the performance is disappointing.”

That remains to be seen. There have been reports that the club is discussing Mosimane’s future, though these have been denied. Al-Ahly have slipped seven points behind Zamalek in the league, but do have four games in hand.

Over in Riyadh, Ramon Diaz is in a stronger position. The Argentine returns to Al-Hilal to succeed Jardim in February and it is fair to say that his appointment was not seen by fans as an exciting one. Results have, however, been excellent, with 16 wins out of 20 games. Two of those that did not end up in victory came at the end of the Asian Champions League group stage, as Al-Hilal, already through to the knockout phase, took their foot off the gas.

It is in the league where the champions have really impressed, with 33 points taken from a possible 36. That amazing run means that the title race, assumed to be over, is very much on. When Diaz arrived, leaders Al-Ittihad were 16 points ahead of the Riyadh giants. Now the two teams are level on points and goal difference with two games of the season remaining. It is clear where the momentum and confidence lies and Al-Hilal are favorites to win.

Diaz’s contract with the club ends on June 30. There have been reports in Argentina that the former River Plate chief has already started negotiations with bosses to get a new deal, though Al-Hilal feel there is no need to rush.

There have been a few concerns from fans about some of the performances under Diaz, but the club have an appreciation that playing well in every game during an intense period of matches — the Asian Champions League, getting to the King’s Cup final in May and then having to catch up missed league commitments from earlier in the session — is impossible. As well as the fixture list, he has had to contend with a long list of absences. What the Argentine has delivered is wins and an ability to get results from difficult circumstances. He has changed the mentality in the dressing room.

Al-Hilal are however, like Al-Ahly, a demanding club and demand success. Diaz knows that his negotiating position becomes stronger the closer he gets to the title. A few weeks ago, this was looking impossible, but not any more.

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