Fans around Europe first noticed Ahmed Hassan when he cried. The Egyptian striker, nicknamed Koka, scored a magnificent goal for Sporting Braga against Marseille in a Europa League clash in late October, lobbing Steve Mandanda with a deft touch, and then bursting into tears.
The reason was quite remarkable. Koka’s father unexpectedly passed away 24 hours before the game, but the forward asked to be on the field nevertheless and dedicated the dramatic 3-2 win to his late dad.
“I am here because of my father. He was everything to me and helped me to become who I am. I didn’t want to give up. I tried to score a goal for him, and that’s how it was”, an emotional Koka said after the game.
Immediately afterwards, he flew out to Cairo to attend the funeral, and thus missed the big game at Porto in the Portuguese league. The Dragons were probably quite fortunate not to face him, and the fixture ended goalless.
On Sunday, Braga hosted a Porto side desperately needing a win in order to stay in the title race. Benfica had just beaten Sporting in the Lisbon derby, and three points would keep the northeners within touching distance of the summit.
This time, though, Koka was on the pitch, and it mattered. On 73 minutes, the Egyptian got a ball in the penalty area following a mistake by Spanish stopper Ivan Marcano, and expertly put it into the net past Iker Casillas. Braga eventually ran out 3-1 winners, putting an end to Porto’s dreams.
Needless to say, Benfica were delighted with the result. On the other hand, the Eagles might be kicking themselves when witnessing the prolific form of Koka. Ever since his father’s death, Hassan can’t stop scoring, with nine league goals for Braga to his name already.
Are the Lisbon giants, who very nearly signed him last summer, now sorry that they backtracked on the deal?
Everything seemed to be closed by May last year. Koka caught an eye by Portuguese standards after scoring 12 goals for modest Rio Ave, and both Lisbon rivals were keen on getting him.
Sporting saw their offer refused, then Benfica came in and were more successful. The pre-contract was signed before the season ended, and only a medical check stood between Hassan and the Estadio da Luz.
That’s when things became complicated. Benfica’s medical staff found a heart problem that required minor surgery. Upon its completion, the second medical check was supposed to take place, but it never happened.
The Eagles decided to keep away from the Egyptian, leaving him disappointed in the extreme. “I felt very distressed,” he said in an interview with FilGoal. Eventually, Rio Ave took him back, and the striker had a fruitful pr-eseason with them.
Veteran Portuguese coach Manuel Jose offered an explanation for such a turn of events. According to him, Benfica are still experiencing trauma following the tragic death of Hungarian star Miklos Feher, who collapsed on the pitch in January 2004. The 24-year-old suffered from cardiac arrythmia, but that was unknown to the club. “I think that those events crossed the Benfica officials’ minds. They didn’t want to take risks,” Jose said. It is quite hard to blame them.
Jose, who used to work at Benfica and Sporting in the past, knows Koka better than most. He was the coach of Al Ahly when the young striker was on the verge of joining the first team from the club’s academy in 2011, but wasn’t offered a contract.
“Hassan trained regularly with the first squad, and the only reason he didn’t play for us was that I had the best strikers in Egypt,” Jose explained.
What happened next is quite unclear, and Al Ahly fans still have hard feelings regarding the way in which the player left the club. There were rumours that Jose’s son was responsible for the move to Rio Ave. It turned out, however, that the move was for the best.
Hassan waited until late 2012 to make his debut for the Portuguese club, and scored seven goals in his debut season. 2013-14 was a bit less successful, even though Rio Ave reached the finals of both cup competitions, but last term Koka came of age and became one of the leaders. It was only natural that he wanted to take the next step.
After the move to Benfica collapsed, Braga somewhat belatedly stepped in. Hassan scored the winner for Rio Ave against them in late August, and a couple of days later he was already at his new club. “Had he arrived to us a week earlier, we wouldn’t have lost at the weekend,” Braga coach Paulo Fonseca joked, and the Egyptian was accepted very warmly.
“I want to be amongst the three top strikers in Portugal and progress as far as possible in Europa League,” Koka stated. His first two months were rather average, the only highlight being a winner against Groningen in early October.
But everything changed after that extremely emotional game against Marseille. Suddenly, Koka became unstoppable. He scored two braces in January, added goals against Estoril, Maritimo and Guimaraes in February, and against Porto finally managed to find the net against top opposition, two days after celebrating his 23rd birthday. Fonseca was more delighted than anyone – it was sweet revenge for the man whom Porto fired two years ago.
Egypt coach Hector Cuper is excited as well. The Argentinian believes in Hassan, and was rewarded with four goals in three games in the autumn, including a brace versus Chad in 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The Pharaohs have high hopes for the tournament with a crop of young talent.
Mohamed Salah is fast becoming a real Serie A superstar at Roma, Mohamed Elneny has joined Arsenal, and now Koka is developing into a very interesting striker. Tall, physically strong and sound technically, he is somewhat reminiscent of Mido, only with much better attitude.
Hassan is good friends with Salah and Elneny, frequently celebrating their achievements on social networks. He knows them well since they played at the Under-20 World Cup in 2011 together, and now they seem ready for glory on the big stage.
“My dream is to make my family and my country pround,” Koka states on Twitter, and he is on the right track to achieving just that.
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When Liverpool made a meek return to the Champions League last season, the Reds deterioration from a previous title-challenging season was discernible.
A 1-1 draw with Basel saw them crash out at the group stage and it was clear then that Brendan Rodgers’ players had forgotten what is expected of them on the big European nights, under the floodlights, in front of their own crowd.
They had politely ushered themselves out of the door, dropping into the awkward Thursday-night, Sunday-afternoon cycle of Europa League football. Manchester United fans, as would be expected from an eternal rival, mocked from their perch.
Ironic then, that the two Premier League giants, who combined have lifted 16 continental trophies, meet in Europe’s most unloved competition for their first ever continental encounter, both desperate to use this back-door entry back into the elite.
Of course, that’s not to rule out the Premier League route through the top four as the two sides have done well to climb back into contention, capitalising on Manchester City and Arsenal’s floundering form.
Still, though, those two will almost certainly recover and Thursday nights now represent the best course – even with Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham, Sevilla and Shakhtar Donetsk still in the mix.
What we have is a tie with more than just the usual battle for pride. Yes, the narrative is slightly warped given these latest editions of United and Liverpool sit sixth and seventh respectively, but regardless this is a big game, despite it being a Europa League last-16 tie.
For Liverpool, it’s a third shot at retribution. They are riding on the back of two successful revenge missions, having battered League Cup final foes Manchester City and ripped the perennial script up against bogey-side Crystal Palace. The latter a historic triumph as the Reds came back from a goal and a man down for the first time.
On Thursday night, they will endeavour to avoid an unwanted entry into their record books, though.
Liverpool have lost the last four meetings with United and have never suffered five successive defeats against their North-West rivals. Their current run equals their worst ever – they also lost four on the spin from 1912-1914, 1996-1997 and 2006-2008.
To buck that trend, Jurgen Klopp will need to remind his players of the expectations his predecessor failed to project. Equally, this tie is paramount to the man in the opposite dugout. Should United secure a Champions League place, be it via the league or the Europa League, then this season, which is surely to be Louis van Gaal’s last at Old Trafford, can be viewed as a considerable success.
The Dutchman would rate the achievement better than last season’s comfortable fourth-placed finish given the apocalyptic predictions in December. To qualify by virtue of Europa League success, though the fact they’re even in it indicates someone has messed up somewhere, would at least mean they have won something.
And to do it at the expense of Liverpool en route will bring a smile to supporters faces more than he did with his comedy dive last week.
Whatever the circumstance, this is a big European night, under the floodlights and in front of two passionate sets of supporters. Lets hope the two sides live up to that significance, too.
Paris Saint Germain talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic has warned Chelsea he is better than ever ahead of a return to Stamford Bridge, but denied being eager for revenge.
The 34-year-old Sweden striker was sent off in the first half of last season’s second leg between the clubs, which saw PSG progress to the quarter-finals on away goals.
Ibrahimovic afterwards called Chelsea players “babies” for their role in his dismissal, believing Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers had been hounded into the decision for a challenge on Oscar which was more clumsy than malicious.
“From the last game here I never saw something like that before from mature players like that,” Ibrahimovic said.
“It’s a new game, let’s play different. I never think about revenge and these things.
“Hopefully I will stay on the pitch longer than the last time to have a possibility to do things I’m good at. (But) revenge, absolutely not. What happened in the past happened in the past.”
Ibrahimovic, who has scored 23 goals in 23 Ligue 1 games this season, has been linked with a move to the Premier League when his PSG contract expires at the end of the season.
The striker, who in November 2012 scored four goals for Sweden against England, was asked about his relationship with English football and his future.
He said: “After my four goals my relation became perfect. Before there was no relation. “My future is I have another two months with PSG, then I have the Euros (with Sweden). Whatever happens after that – there is nothing after that.
“I am not in discussion with nobody because for me it’s not the time. I’m not worried about the future, because for me the future looks good after the season I’m doing. People say I’m old. I’m only warming up.
“I don’t believe it’s the end of my career. Age is just a number and I feel young, I feel very young. I never had better statistics than this.”
In a distinguished career which has taken him to Ajax, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Barcelona, Ibrahimovic has yet to win the Champions League.
He added: “It was almost an obsession, then I started to mature and get to know myself.
“I have the possibility this year. If I can win it of course I will be very happy. I had luck to win a lot of trophies with a lot of fantastic clubs.
“I will do my best to win it, but it will not change the player I am.”
Meanwhile, Chelsea interim boss Guus Hiddink has defended Diego Costa’s behaviour and scoring record ahead of tonight’s tie.
PSG’s social media team upped the ante on the eve of the clash with a video montage of masked super heroes titled ‘spot the fraud’, which also included Costa, who has been playing with a protective mask due to a broken nose.
Vous avez trouvé le héros ? Ok, maintenant trouvez l'imposteur ! https://t.co/43863goxe1— PSG Officiel (@PSG_inside) March 8, 2016
PSG boss Laurent Blanc warned his players to watch out for archantagonist Costa, who has scored 10 goals in 14 games under Hiddink, but has just one Champions League goal in two seasons and 14 games with the Blues.
Costa, available after missing last Saturday’s draw with Stoke as a precaution over a minor tendon problem, has a reputation for riling opponents. He has never been sent off for Chelsea, although he has served two retrospective three-match domestic bans in his two seasons in London.
“I’m very proud of him the way he’s playing and, going not over the edge, but he likes to fight in the real way of the game,” Hiddink said.
“That’s what we like. I protect him and support him when he’s doing what he has done in my period at Chelsea.”
Blanc added: “I’m a big fan of (Costa) as a player. And we know all about him as an individual, as a man. He’s someone who likes contact, likes to engage in a bit of provocation. But we’re used to it.
“I’ll tell my players not to respond to that, to keep cool in the face of provocations. In order to perform very well you need to maximise what you’ve got and keep all 11 players on the pitch.”