Can Nejmeh rise against the odds to qualify for the zonal semi-finals?

On Monday, Nejmeh will begin their 2019 AFC Cup campaign in Amman, facing Jordanian champions Al Wehdat in their first game in the competition since May 2017. The pressure is on the Nejmeh players and coaching staff after Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to Salam Zgharta that has left Ahed 8 points clear at the top of the table and seemingly on their way to a third successive title win. In addition, this season’s performances have been underwhelming to say the least, and the fans are demanding success on the continental stage.

 And yet the season promised so much. After a disappointing end to the previous season, losing the title and the cup to major rivals Ahed, Nejmeh started the summer looking revitalised. After the departure of the popular German, Theo Bucker, Nejmeh turned to the Tunisian Tarek Jarraya, previously of Salam Zgharta, for the Arab Championship Qualifiers. Nejmeh were drawn in a very difficult group alongside ASAC Concorde of Mauritania, Al Faisaly of Saudi Arabia and Tunisian giants Club Africain, and with only the first in the group going to the next round, the odds seemed stacked against the Beiruti club.

However, inspired by Jarraya’s tactical ingenuity and brilliant training work, Nejmeh pulled off a massive shock, winning all three games, scoring 7 goals and conceding just once. Nejmeh were particularly impressive in their 1-0 victory over Club Africain despite being under intense pressure throughout the game as they held their own against a team containing two players who were at the World Cup with Tunisia and a club who won the African Champions League back in 1991. Jarraya had gotten the best out of the likes of Hassan Maatouk and Nader Matar in his 3-4-3 counter-attacking system, and we also saw the revival of injury-hit Mahmoud Sablini and the continuing of Ali El Hajj’s emergence as an exciting prospect.

But unfortunately, three games were the duration of the Jarraya adventure for Nejmeh fans, with a ban he picked up while coaching Salam Zgharta prohibiting them from keeping him for the domestic season. Since then, Nejmeh have struggled to rediscover their groove. Boris Bunjak was fired after only 3 months in charge because of poor performances and an overly-defensive mentality, but things have not greatly improved under club legend Moussa Hojeij, as the club’s issues and instability seems to be affecting the performances on the field. The problems at the club are numerous: administrative and financial instability, ever-changing player personnel and talisman Hassan Maatouk wanting out. But for the fans, it’s the distance between their team and big rivals Ahed which hurts the most, and this distance does not seem like it will be reduced anytime soon.

So this continental campaign offers Nejmeh fans a break from all these issues, and a chance to make some happy memories and maybe even history. Indeed, no Lebanese club has ever won an international competition of any kind, although Nejmeh reached the final back in 2005.

But it will be far from easy.  They have been drawn in the toughest group in Western Asia alongside Syrian champions Al Jaish, Jordanian champions Al Wehdat and Palestinian champions Hilal Al Quds. Plus, only the winners of the group are guaranteed a place in the next round, with the best runner-up among the three West Asia groups joining the three winners in the zonal semi-finals.

Al Wehdat are probably the favourites to win the group. They are the Jordanian defending champions and are the second most successful in Jordan after Al Faisaly, having won 16 league titles and 10 FA Cups. They can also count 10 previous AFC Cup appearances, although the furthest they have gone is the semis. But they actually lost in the Asian Champions League Qualifying round before entering this competition, losing 3-2 to Kuwait SC. They have 5 players who were at this year’s Asian Cup, including star midfielder Saeed Murjan. Their key player will be Baha Faisal, a striker who shows great instinct in the box and who also poses a big aerial threat adding to his great runs in behind. He is the second top scorer in the local league with 7 goals from 13 matches and featured twice off the bench for Jordan at the Asian Cup. Another player to watch will be Hamza Al Dardour who, although he has not been specifically prolific for his club, has been one of Jordan’s best strikers in recent years and was a shock absentee from the Asian Cup squad. Al Wehdat last faced Nejmeh in the AFC Group Stages back in 2017, winning the home leg 1-0 and drawing 1-1 in Lebanon.

Al Jaish will also be very difficult opponents for the “Nation’s Club” (Nadi Al Watan). They are coming into this tournament off the back of a league and cup double and are by far the most successful club side in Syrian football having won a total of 16 titles, twice as much as second-placed Al Karamah. Their recent continental record is not very impressive as they have failed to go past the group stages in three AFC Cup appearances since they won it in 2004. However, they did participate in the Asian Champions League Group Stage in 2005. They had three players who were called up to the Asian Cup, including starting left-back Abdul Malek Anizan. Their star player is 33 year-old striker Mohammed Al Wakid, who is the local league’s current top scorer with 18 goals in just 17 games, 10 goals clear of second place. They also came across Nejmeh in their last participation in this competition, back in 2014, drawing the first game 0-0 and losing the return leg 1-0.

It is a historic participation for Palestinian side Hilal Al Quds as this is the first time they have made it to the Group Stages of the AFC Cup after two previous defeats in the Play-off round. It is also the first Palestinian participation in this competition since 2016, and they had to overcome Al Nasr of Oman, winning 2-1 in the home leg and 1-0 in the away leg. This is a club who have only won the West Bank Premier League three times but they are coming off the back of two successive league titles and a league and cup double this time around. Indeed, they have been the most successful club in the last decade and have become a giant on the national stage. They had 5 players in the Palestinian squad at the Asian Cup, including starting goalkeeper Rami Hamada and starting midfielders Jonathan Cantillana and Mohammad Darwish. But their key player is Oday Dabbagh who, although only started the last game for Palestine at the Asian Cup, is a dangerous winger who has great dribbling ability and who scored in both legs against Al Nasr. It remains to be seen whether Al Jaish and Nejmeh will play in the Faisal Al Husseini Stadium in the West Bank in front of the passionate Palestinian supporters, with those games expected to be moved to Bahrain due to diplomatic issues. But one thing is for sure: this team, albeit underdogs, will put up a really good fight.

It is clearly a difficult task for Nejmeh to top this group. But there are reasons to be hopeful. First of all, despite all having finished top of their respective leagues last summer, none of Nejmeh’s opponents have had a particularly great season so far. Al Jaish and Hilal Al Quds are both third in their respective leagues at the moment, while Al Wehdat currently find themselves in fifth position in the Jordanian Pro League.

Another positive for Nejmeh is head coach Moussa Hojeij, who demonstrated in his time managing Ahed his ability to cause big upsets, much bigger than those that will be required of him during this competition. In the 2017 Arab Club Championship, Ahed managed to draw 1-1 with Saudi runners-up Al Nassr, a team with numerous players from the Saudi National Team, beat Egyptian/African giants Zamalek 1-0 in their own backyard, and draw 1-1 with Fatah Rabat. During the competition, Hojeij was praised for having set up his team with a very well-drilled and tactically astute system, with the players knowing exactly their role in the defensive phase all while being given the platform to showcase their talent on the counter-attack. And if he can show the same levels of intelligence and organise his team on a similar level, he will give Nejmeh a really good chance to do well in this competition.

Finally, Nejmeh have some great players of their own including Hassan Maatouk, who may very well be one of the best players in this year’s competition and seems to be returning to form just in time for Monday’s game. Other key players include Kassem El Zein, who has grown into a top defender in the last year, Nader Matar, who has a great ability to make forward runs from midfield using his pace and skill, and Abu Bakr Al Mal, who on his day is a fantastic all-round striker, although he is yet to hit his best form in a Nejmeh shirt. And then there is the wildcard that is Ali El Hajj.

Son of Nejmeh legend Jamal Al Hajj, youngster Ali erupted onto the scene of Lebanese football towards the end of last season, scoring a stunning long-range effort against Safa on his full debut. His brilliant technical skill and dazzling dribbling ability have caught the eyes of many as he impressed in the Arab Club Championship during which he scored the last-minute winner against Al Faisaly and was also Nejmeh’s best attacking player during the two-legged tie against Al Ahly, the biggest club in African and Arab football. In fact, he went last summer on a trial at Austrian Bundesliga side Admira Wacker where he was supposed to train with the under 21s, but impressed so much that he was immediately promoted to the first team. He even featured in two friendly games for them, getting an assist in each including the winning goal in his first game. And it is rumoured that he has already agreed a contract to join them when he turns 18, in accordance with FIFA’s regulations. And although he barely featured under previous head coach Boris Bunjak, he has been getting increased game time, albeit from the bench, since Hojeij was appointed, and he has made huge impacts coming on in recent games. Although he is still extremely young, Ali El Hajj has unbeliavable ability and enormous potential and could prove to be a real asset for Nejmeh during their AFC Cup campaign, whether from the bench or the starting eleven.

All in all, Nejmeh are clearly up against it in this “group of death” despite fans’ expectations. But if they do everything right, they definitely have a chance of causing a surprise and coming out on top of Group A and book themselves a slot in the zonal semi-finals.

 

 

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