Today, Nejmeh face rivals Ansar in one of the most important derby in their history, with the title necessarily going to one of the two by the end of the game.
After what has been an exciting hotly-contested title race, it all comes down to this final battle between the two giants of Lebanese football and the stakes could not be higher.
Nejmeh haven’t won the league title since 2015 while Ansar haven’t been domestic champions since 2007, with both clubs having been outdone by a dominant Ahed in recent years. But this season proved to be different from the onset, with these two sides racing to the top early on and staying there right down to the wire.
Although Nejmeh won the derby that took place earlier in the season, it is Ansar who go into this one with the advantage, their 2 points lead meaning that anything but a defeat will clinch the league for the “Green Leader”.
However, it has not been plain sailing for the current league leaders, especially given the resignation of Iraqi head coach Abdel Wahab Abu Al Hail and his prompt replacement with the experienced Robert Jaspert.
The German has surely not yet had the time to properly implement his style on the team which means that Ansar will mainly be relying on its wide selection of star quality individuals headed by Hassan Maatouk, who at 33 remains the best player in this country by a mile. The key for Ansar will be whether they can keep it tight at the back, avoid silly mistakes and provide Maatouk with the supporting cast that will help him make the difference. This will mean key roles for Moni and Nader Matar who bring quality to the middle of the park as well as goals and combine well with the National Team captain. Hussein El Dor and team captain Moataz Jounaidi will be charged with marshalling the defence and goalie Nazih Assad will be looking to keep out his former side. Added threat for Ansar could come from the flanks in the form of Nassar Nassar, who has been very effective in attacking positions this season, and striker Karim Darwiche, who likes to roam onto the wings and facilitate the link-up play with his teammates.
On the other hand, Nejmeh will look to capitalise on the abundance of midfield talent they have at their disposal, whose mission it will be to provide the service for the likes of Mohammad Ghaddar and Mahmoud Siblini upfront to score. Players like Hassan Kourani, Alee Sisi and even club veteran Abbas Atwi like to get on the ball and spray passes from the middle of the park and it will be important whether they will be actually be able to grab hold of the ball and whether they will have the time and space to play their characteristic penetrative passes for the forwards. But while Nejmeh may have more options in the middle, on the flanks they could be exposed by Ansar and it doesn’t help that they will be missing Maher Sabra, who has been a towering influence at the heart of the defence, through suspension. Nejmeh’s lack of central defensive options has been pointed to as an issue throughout this campaign and it may cost them dearly if Moussa Hojeij is unable to find a formula which doesn’t see his side lose that solidity that has been so important to their success thus far. Captain Ali Hamam will have to step up his game even more and show his leadership and experience of Nejmeh are to get over the line and whoever partners him at centre-back will have to have the game of his life. Meanwhile, in an attacking sense, there could be an important part to play, if maybe off the bench, for the likes of Edmonde Chehade and Khalil Bader, who can add dynamism and penetration off the bench.
I personally believe that the key in this game lies in the control of the midfield. If Hassan Maatouk is allowed to get on the ball and particularly in more central areas and in the half spaces in between the lines and is able to link up with the likes of Moni, Matar and Darwiche, this may prove to be a difficult game for Nejmeh. However, if Nejmeh can get hold of possession through the likes of Hassan Kourani and Alee Sisi who can then dictate the tempo of the game and put pressure on the Ansar backline while simultaneously keeping Ansar’s offensive stars out of the game, then this could put them in the driver’s seat. It will be interesting to see whether one of the teams takes the initiative and tries to play on the front foot, or if both keep cautious and play more conservative, focusing on maintaining things tight at the back and trying to capitalise on counter attack opportunities. It is in decisions like these that the coaches Moussa Hojeij and Robert Jaspert will prove their worth.
Clearly this will be a fascinating battle between two rivals that have defined Lebanese football for decades. This rivalry is at the heart of the football culture in this country and whatever happens today could have huge significance in the near future of the domestic game and the balance of power between these two enemies. This is particularly the case for the management of both clubs, with both presidents having come with the goal to bring titles back to their clubs and both having as of yet failed to deliver, despite the vast money invested. These two presidents still largely have the backing of their respective supporters but things could be very different at the end of the 90 minutes.
One unfortunate characteristic of today’s game is that it will be played behind closed doors because of the ongoing pandemic and the associated health emergency. This is a real shame as this is clearly a game that would have attracted massive crowds, crowds surely large enough to fill up the entire Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium. Instead, this game will be played at the Fouad Chehab Stadium in Jounieh, which has the best playing surface in the country, something which should definitely contribute to giving us a better quality spectacle. And although fans will not be allowed inside the stadium, they will be sure to gather to watch the game whether in restaurants and cafes across the country or on the bridge that overlooks the stadium in Jounieh. Already, yesterday saw parts of Beirut completely taken over by the supporters of both clubs who made sure to show their support for their teams and do their best to push them all the way to glory. Can’t wait for the game to start; it really is games like these that we watch football for!