Finally, the Lebanese Premier League season has begun, and it all started with a thrilling encounter at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium in Beirut on Friday night.
The first match of the season was a new edition of the big derby match between the fiercest of rivals, the Lebanese “Classico”, between Nejmeh and Ansar. This is a game that always sparks sectarian tension in addition to sporting and geographical rivalry, with the Hariri-backed Ansar being supported by a mainly Sunni fanbase, and Nejmeh having a very large Shia fanbase. In fact, this game was the whole reason for the delay to the start of the league season, with the army requesting postponement of the match due to security concerns during Ashura. But the hope from everyone was that, as we got closer to the match, people would be talking more about Maatouk versus El Hajj Malick or Abu Zema versus Bunjak than about Hariri versus Hezbollah. Luckily for us, the players ensured that was the case by the end of the game, delivering us a very entertaining affair, and a great advert for the local game.
Both teams underwent major changes over the summer. Nejmeh appointed Boris Bunjak as head coach and signed players such as Abu Bakr Al Mal, top scorer in the league two years ago, Syrian international defender Ahmad Deeb, and star midfielders Mohammad Jaafar and Omar Zeineddine. Meanwhile, Ansar sacked Frantisek Straka despite the improvements towards the end of last season and replaced him with Jordanian head coach Abdallah Abu Zema, and brought in the second top scorer of the league last season Hassan Chaito Moni, one of the league’s best defenders last year in Hassan Bitar, and Tunisian midfielder Houssem Louati. Therefore, it was very interesting to see how both teams would line up. On Nejmeh’s side, Boris Bunjak went with a 4-3-3. In goal, Ali al Sabeh started with regular first-choice Abbas Hassan only fit for the bench after recently recovering from an injury. The back four comprised of captain Ali Hamam, Kassem El Zein, Ahmad Deeb and the versatile midfielder Ali Bazzi, chosen over Amir El Hossary at left-back. New signing Omar Zeineddine occupied a deep midfield role alongside Idrissa Niang with Nader Matar further forward. On the left of the front three it was Hassan Maatouk and on the right Abu Bakr Al Mal, hoping to return to the heights he reached during the 2016/17 season with Tripoli SC. And upfront, Bunjak went with Brazilian forward Phillipe Dos Santos instead Ali Alaaeddine, who had seemingly become a favourite of his until now. On the other hand, Ansar fielded a 4-4-1-1. Rabih El Kakhi, remembered for his heroics during last year’s 5-0 win against Nejmeh, started in goal. The back four consisted of Nassar Nassar, Mootaz Jounaidi, Hasan Bitar and Hassan Chaito Shibriko. The central midfield pairing of Bilal Najdi and Adnan Haidar was supported by Houssem Louati on the right and Hassan Chaito Moni on the left, both of whom are more used to playing as central midfielders. Abbas Atwi Onika occupied the number 10 role and last year’s top scorer El Hajj Malick Tall was the lone striker.
It was a fantastic occasion, with many fans attending the wonderful Sports City Stadium and it was Ansar who started the brighter of the two teams, playing on the front foot, pressing high and pinning Nejmeh back early on. However, with eight minutes on the clock, Nader Matar dribbled past Louati and attempted a shot from long-range which was diverted into the back of the net by Abu Bakr Al Mal. Ansar kept going, and Houssem Louaiti had a long-range effort that went over the bar. A little later, Hassan Chaito Moni had a good chance on the counter-attack but couldn’t keep his composure and also went over. Ansar were dominating possession and their midfield, effectively consisting of five players with the wide players and Atwi tucking in, completely outnumbered Nejmeh’s midfield trio. However, for all their possession, they couldn’t threaten Ali Al Sabeh’s goal and in the 31st minute, Nejmeh doubled their lead. It started with Matar winning the ball back and finding Phillipe Dos Santos on the right side. The latter cut inside and played a brilliant diagonal ball to the other side for Hassan Maatouk. Maatouk dribbled past Nassar Nassar and fired a low cross across the goal, only for Jounaidi’s clearance to fall to Zeineddine’s feet on the edge of the area, who hammered home. Even though it was Nejmeh who were in the lead, it was clear to see that Ansar were the better side and, in the 37th minute, it finally paid off. Atwi hit a great free-kick from the edge of the box which went over the wall and off the crossbar. Luckily for the men in green, El Hajj Malick met the rebound with his head and directed it into the empty net. It was a great time to score as we were approaching half-time and Ansar were growing increasingly discouraged. But in football, things change quickly, and two minutes after the goal, Maatouk was withdrawn due to injury and replaced by Hassan Al Mohammad. The second half saw more of the same, as Ansar steeped up their chase for an equalizer. Louaiti missed a great chance just after the break as he found himself unmarked at the back post but could only direct the cross over the bar. Fortunately for him, ten minutes later, he was given the chance to redeem himself, and he made no mistake this time as he drilled the ball into the goal from a very similar position to the one he was in for his previous chance. At 2-2, Ansar looked the most likely to win the game. But yet again, Nejmeh’s quality shone through despite an underwhelming performance, with Nader Matar hitting a shot from twenty yards out into the bottom corner with only one minute left of normal time, and Matar again scoring a few minutes later, this time from a penalty earned by substitute Ali Alaaeddine’s perseverance and hassling of Nassar.
Abdallah Abu Zema will be very disappointed with the result, especially given the great performance. His side won the tactical battle as the 5-man midfield dominated proceedings and still managed to keep width through the support of the full-backs as well as a side-to-side passing game. Meanwhile, this is yet another game that I watch of Bunjak’s Nejmeh side where I see no tactical organization – Nader Matar, Niang and Zeineddine could often be seen defending the same side of the pitch, leaving loads of gaps on the other side – and no attacking impetus. While I conceive that it is still early days in the Serbian coach’s reign, I struggle to understand what his philosophy is. In the match against Al Ahly, Nejmeh just camped in their box and hoped to see out the storm, displaying no tactical plan to stop Ahly, and no attempt to hurt them. And while a 0-0 draw was a historical result, it was more the result of luck and great individual performances by goalkeeper and defenders than of a tactical masterclass. It was the same story here. If Ansar were a little more ruthless in attack, they could have easily won the game. At the moment, all I see in this Nejmeh team is great individuals who are winning matches for them through moments of magic, just as Matar did on Friday. The 4-2 scoreline is not a fair reflection of how the game went, only a reflection of the difference in quality of the players on both sides. Ansar showed encouraging signs, with Louaiti and Bitar particular bright spots, but are still a fair way behind the top 2 in terms of quality and squad depth. Meanwhile, Nejmeh need to improve massively if they are to challenge Ahly next Friday in the Arab Championship, and more importantly, if they are to challenge Ahed for the league title. Overall, though, it was great match with an exceptional intensity and a fantastic atmosphere: the best way to kickstart the league season.
On Saturday, the biggest match was at the Amin Abdelnour Stadium in Bhamdoun where Akhaa Ahli Aley faced Salam Zgharta. Akhaa have been on a fantastic rise, with Iraqi coach Abdel Wahab Abu Al Hail playing a major part having made this team very well-drilled, defensively solid and hard to beat, and could potentially compete for the title this season after a very successful transfer window and a great showing in the Elite Cup. Salam Zgharta are a club who are trying to grow as well and will have had one eye on the Arab Club Championship tie against Raja Casablanca coming up on Saturday. Akhaa took an early lead through a header by debutant striker Carlos Alberto, who is already looking like a contender for the league’s golden boot. But the lead didn’t last long, with Adnan Melhem getting on the end of a through ball to half-volley it past Shaker Wehbe. The second half was a tale of two keepers, as neither team was able to find a winner, with Wehbe particularly impressive as he denied Niass on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, newly-promoted side Shabab Al Sahel, who will look to be the dark horse this season in the fight for top 6, marked their return with a 3-0 away to Tripoli SC, in which Lebanese legend Abbas Atwi starred on his debut, with the losing side looking at a very difficult campaign ahead after a chaotic summer. Bekaa Sports, despite the financial difficulties experienced during the summer, beat Roda Antar’s Racing Beirut 2-0 at home, with new signing Emanuel Bello getting both goals. And in the derby of the south, Tadamon Sour beat newly-promoted Shabab Ghazieh 1-0 in what was a very tight game.
Sunday saw the first matchday of the 2018/19 season wrapped up with a 6-0 victory for Ahed over Safa, with new signing Martyn Toshev bagging a hattrick as well as goals from Kdouh, Dakik, and a own-goal for Ali Al Saadi against his former club. There was also a Nour Mansour goal rightly disallowed for offside, and Rabih Ataya missed a chance to mark his debut with a goal from the penalty spot in what was a statement of intent from Ahed, who seem stronger than ever and fully determined to continue their domination. On the other hand, it was an awful performance from Safa, especially their backline, with goalkeeper Taha making all sorts of mistakes and Ahed being generally given way too much time on the ball.
But overall, this promises to be one of the greatest seasons in Lebanese football history, and the first matchday did nothing to quash that promise.