The league returns and we have one hell of a title race on our hands

This weekend sees the long awaited return of the Lebanese Premier League and I think it’s fair to say we are very excited. Domestic competitive football has become a rare occurrence in recent years because of social turmoil and the health crisis linked to the pandemic. So it’s wonderful to see the league return, and the new format does add excitement to the competition, which may give us the best title race we have seen in years with 3 teams potentially fighting it out to be crowned champions.

It’s clearly been a difficult time for Lebanon and its people as the country is currently undergoing a crisis of historic proportions and Lebanese football has not been unaffected by this. Since October 2019, there have been constant interruptions due to social unrest, the economic crisis and the COVID crisis. This has left Lebanese footballers at home for large periods of time, missing out on valuable playing time. As domestic competitions kickstart again, all eyes will be on the players’ fitness and how they deal with these difficult circumstances. Clearly, the risk of injury is very high and already several big name players have had to pull out of this week’s games, such as Hussein Rizk (Shabab Sahel), Daniel Abou Fakhr (Akhaa Ahli Aley) and Mohamad Nassreddine (Bourj) among others.

But fitness issues aside, what should await us is a very exciting competition over the next five matchdays. I have repeatedly said that I’m not a fan of the new league format because of the reduction of an already short domestic football calendar, but there is no doubt it adds an extra element to the entertainment. With the league effectively split into a top 6 and a bottom 6, matches should be tightly contested and very heated. The only shame is that MTV, the official TV broadcaster, doesn’t seemed to share this anticipation and will probably continue its careless and minimalistic approach, showing only one live game on television this week. Games will be available to stream online but considering the quality of internet connection in the country this doesn’t constitute a very practical option for many.

And now that I’ve listed most of the issues facing us as we get back to football (haven’t even gotten into the issues regarding host stadiums or the absence of supporters), we can look into the football side if things, which should leave us very eager to get going again. Indeed, we may very well have the most exciting title race we have seen in years. In recent times Ahed has always seemed to cruise its way to the title. But with head coach Marmar having left alongside some high-profile players in the summer, Ahed drifted off under new coach Roda Antar and despite Marmar having since returned, we can already rule them out of the title race.

This leaves us with three teams in a position to compete for top spot. Ansar are in top spot after several years of heavy spending by president Nabil Badr which seem to finally be paying off. Their all-star team with a 33 year-old Hassan Maatouk at the heart of it and in brilliant form – 10 goals and 6 assists; top in league for both – and a supporting cast which includes Hassan Chaito Moni, Nader Matar and Ahmad Hijazi has been scoring for fun while looking solid at the other hand. Of course a major part of that is owed to the Iraqi head coach Abdelwahab Abu Al Hail, who has showed once again his tactical nous and brilliant man management.

However, although Ansar go into these 5 matches very much as favorites, it is by means a settled affair. Nejmeh and Shabab Sahel are hot on their heels and will be determined to spoil the party. Nejmeh have looked reborn under head coach Moussa Hojeij, who has molded a wonderful combination of youth and experience into a fluid attacking system and it’s been extremely fun to watch, all epitomized by the football “beginner” Ali Sisi, who joined from futsal in the summer. Meanwhile, Shabab Sahel have been this year’s dark horses – as they are so many years. The football is definitely not as exciting as the other two title challengers or even as the one they played in previous years. Nonetheless it has proved very effective, with the team from Beirut’s suburbs holding a remarkable defensive record so far: 3 goals conceded in 11 games and 9 clean sheets for goalkeeper Ali Daher.

The rest of the top 6 is made up of a disappointed Ahed team whose main objective will now be to bring in their many talented youngsters to fill the gaps left by all the players who left, in preparation for the AFC Cup where they will look to defend their title. Akhaa Ahly Aley have done really well under new coach Fadi Kakhi, with their midfield trio of Habib Choueikh, Zaher Hassan and Moussa Zayat looking particularly impressive in their energy and ability on the ball. Ultimately, Safa did well to finish in the top 6 after a tricky start led to the departure of coach Emile Rustom and his replacement Mohamad Dekka will be mainly looking to instill his ideas into the players and build for next season.

Of course the top 6 is not the only thing going on; the bottom 6 will be key in deciding who ends up getting relegated. We started the season thinking there were four candidates for relegation: Shabab Ghazieh, Tadamon Sour, Salam Zgharta and Tripoli AC. The latter took everyone by surprise with their youthful exuberance and great endeavor and are pretty much safe. This leaves the two sides from the south and Salam. It’s been a difficult season for the young team of Salam Zgharta and they will need something close to a miracle to stay in the top flight behind this year. This will however be a valuable experience for their youngsters, the most exciting of which is 16 year-old Oscar Ghantous who is already the star of the team and is looking like a massive talent.

The battle between Southern rivals Tadamon Sour and Shabab Ghazieh will be tight and should go down to the wire, with not much separating the two sides. Both teams are greatly lacking in quality but Ghazieh’s talented local youngsters could give them the upper hand over the more experienced Tadamon team.

Otherwise, there is no hiding from the fact that Bourj have underachieved and they will already be looking to next season as they plot to return to the top 6 under a new head coach. Shabab Al Bourj were the big shock at the start of the campaign as their young and exciting attacking players took the league by storm. They drifted off after that and ultimately missed out on top 6 but head coach Youssef Jawhari impressed significantly and they should still end the season on a high as probably the best team of the bottom 6.

This season will also serve as a preparation for the National Team which has 2 friendly matches coming up next week ahead of very important World Cup Qualifiers in June and the upcoming squad is expected to include many players from the domestic league due to travel restrictions linked to COVID.

I’m happy after such a long wait I can say that we will be able to watch our favorite Lebanese teams take the field once again. Yalla enjoy!

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