Friday night saw the biggest derby in Lebanese football take place under the lights of the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, with Nejmeh and Ansar fighting for a place in the FA Cup semi-final. This was the biggest game of the season, especially since Ahed cruised to a third successive league title and with Nejmeh and Ansar both wanting to avoid another trophyless season. Lebanese football fans had been waiting for this game for months, and it didn’t disappoint in terms of entertainment.
The build-up to the game was very intense. Ansar have been playing a very exciting brand of football this season under Jordanian coach Abdallah Abou Zamaa but have not been rewarded in terms of results, having been eliminated from the title race early on. They also came into this game with a lot of questions being asked about their ability to perform in the big games, after having lost to Nejmeh twice in the league despite being the “better side”.
Meanwhile, Nejmeh have been going through somewhat of a crisis. 5 defeats from 5 in the AFC Cup and only two goals scored, including two disastrous 2-1 defeats to Palestinian champions Hilal Al Quds, sees them going into the last game against Al Jaish with the fear of completing their worst ever continental campaign. An internal investigation into match-fixing, the release of two players since the end of the winter transfer window and last week’s resignation of fan favourite head coach Moussa Hojeij meant Friday’s quarter-final was Nejmeh’s last chance to salvage their season and avoid a third successive trophyless season.
The fans turned up in their numbers for the late night kick-off and the atmosphere was electric and heated, just what you would expect from a big derby. Nejmeh were missing two players due to injury, those being centre-back Mohamad Shaona and striker Ali Alaaeddine, in addition to the likes of Maher Sabra, Hassan Al Annan and Mahmoud Sablini who have been out for the entirety of the season. Ali Sabeh retained his place in goal, with interim head coach Bilal Fleifel going back to a back four which included Ali Hamam at right-back, Amir El Hossary at left-back, and Kassem El Zein and Abdelfattah Achour in the centre. Idrissa Niang, Nader Matar and the young Mehdi Zein started in the midfield three while Abubakr El Mal started on the right of the front three, with Hassan Maatouk on the left and youngster Mahmoud Kaawar upfront. Surprisingly, El Mal continues to be played out on the wing instead of his natural position, striker. Other than that, the only selection choices of note were the selection of the two youngsters Kaawar and Zein instead of more experienced alternatives such as Ahmad Jalloul (who has struggled with injuries throughout the season) and Hassan El Mohamad.
Abou Zamaa went with a different setup to the one we have become accustomed to during the season. Hassan Moghnieh was chosen in goal, with the back four in front of him consisting of Hassan Bittar, typically a centre-back, at right-back, Aboubacar Camara and Mootaz Jounaidi at centre-back and Hassan Chaito Shibriko at left-back. Hassan Chaito Moni was played deeper than usual, lining up alongside defensive midfielder Adnan Haidar in a two, with a flexible front three of Soony Saad, Houssam Louati and Hussein Awada tasked with supplying Lebanese Premier League top scorer El Hajj Malick Tall. The absence of Abbas Atwi Onika was a surprise, but the choice to have Louati play in the number ten role instead of his usual place on the right paid off, as he starred and set El Hajj Malick for the first goal.
Indeed, although Nejmeh did have a couple of decent efforts on goal at the beginning of the game, with Hassan Maatouk as usual at the centre of things, it was Ansar who were controlling the proceedings, with their midfield dominating possession through their impressive passing and circulation of the ball. It is true that the lack of pressure on the ball from Nejmeh’s midfielders helped the men in green, but their quality and composure on the ball particularly in the first half should not be downplayed and after a couple of good chances, including a Louati free-kick which hit the post, Ansar took the lead through their prolific striker. After a beautiful move which started with Camara at the back, Moni flicked on the former’s pass over his shoulder, eliminating two Nejmeh players in the process, with Louati picking it up, setting himself up with his first touch and playing a lovely through ball with his second into El Hajj Malick’s path for him to slot away his 21st of the season. It was most definitely poor defending on Nejmeh’s part, with the midfield and the centre-backs all over the place, but nonetheless it was another beautiful and deserved goal for Ansar.
This goal gave them confidence and they got better. Nejmeh were struggling to get out of their own half and before too long Soony Saad made it 2-0 with a wonderful header which looped over Al Sabeh and went in off the woodwork, after finding himself completely unmarked on the end of a great cross. At half-time things looked bleak for Nejmeh and it was hard to imagine them being able to stop Ansar from getting more goals, let alone being able to come back into the game themselves.
But Ansar started the second-half slower and Nejmeh capitalised on that to put some pressure of their own. Although it took them a while to create meaningful opportunities, they started seeing more of the ball and slowly started to grow into the game, with Maatouk causing Ansar all sorts of problems with his mesmerising runs and threatening crosses. And it was Maatouk who created Nejmeh’s goal, dribbling past two defenders down the right and putting in a very good cross, only for it to parried by Moghnieh into the path of Mehdi Zein who duly converted. Nejmeh continued to push without creating any further opportunities of note, with Hassan Bittar impressing in defence. Abu Zamaa brought on another defender as he looked to sure up the defence and hold onto his lead. However, as Nejmeh committed more men forward, Ansar started to look very dangerous on the counter-attack, with one of them leading to Al Sabeh taking a red card for denying El Hajj Malick a clear goalscoring opportunity. Achour went in goal for the last few minutes of the game since Fleifel had already made all his substitutions but he was not called into action as Ansar just ran the clock down.
Nejmeh would have been encouraged by their showing in the second half, by far their best in the last month, but it was too little too late as Ansar’s quality and team cohesion were superior. Abu Zamaa has built a really strong team who keep possession very well and are very good at finding dangerous spaces. Meanwhile Nejmeh were completely disorganised and completely reliant on Maatouk’s individual ability in order to create chances going forward.
But from a neutral point of view, this “Classico” was a great advert for the Lebanese game and just like last season’s quarter-final between the two sides, Lebanese fans were able to watch a very good game of extremely high intensity and excellent quality. We can only hope that we see more games as good as this one in the future and that these games create more interest in the local game, which has lost most of its supporters over recent years.