Ahed, Nejmeh square off in season opener
Competitive season ahead with European experience returning for some clubs
BEIRUT: With a lucrative new TV deal and some of the most talented homegrown players returning to the capital, the Lebanese Premier League is set to be one of the most competitive in recent years.
With the season kicking off Friday with a mouth-watering tie between Ahed and Nejmeh, The Daily Star looks ahead to the new campaign and where the title will be won and lost.
AHED: Last season: Champions This Season: Champions
Defending champions Ahed boast the best team chemistry in the league, and will again be favorites for the title. Already with the likes of Mohammad Haidar in attack coupled with Nour Mansour and new signings Ali al-Saade and Mehdi Khalil holding down the defense, Ahed added Samir Ayyas from Bulgaria’s top flight to a midfield dominated by Haytham Faour. Expect Ahed to repeat as champions, though it will be interesting to see how new coach Moussa Hojeij manages his side.
NEJMEH: Last season: 3rd This season: 2nd
After recent seasons saw the Beirut side fail to make the grade, a new club president was appointed and immediately made his mark signing Lebanon captain Hasan Maatouk and goalkeeper Abbas Hasan from the Swedish second division. It will be interesting to see how Ahmad Jalloul copes with pressure from the demanding Nejmeh fan base. Expect midfielder Nader Matar to continue his fine form for club and country as arguably the league’s biggest club makes a strong push to bring the title back to Manara.
RACING: Last season: 7th This season: 3rd
Perhaps one of the more exciting teams to watch, all eyes will be on newly appointed coach and Lebanon’s all-time leading goalscorer Roda Antar. Antar will look to instill discipline and tactical awareness in a side that has consistently remained in the top tier. Look for the “White Castle” to play an attractive style of football and perhaps be the dark horses of this year’s competition.
ANSAR: Last season: 4th This season: 4th
An offseason filled with big-name signings culminated in a shaky preseason with head coach Emile Rustom parting ways with the Green Club after less than two months in the job. His replacement,
Robert Jasper will look to bring chemistry and discipline to one of the most experienced sides in the league. Ansar signed former Ahed captain Abbas “Onika” Atwi and Nejmeh standout Khaled Takaji before the club’s former captain Mootaz Junaidi made a last minute return to Beirut from overseas. Adnan Haidar joined from Norway’s third-tier, but the heavy spending by President Nabil Bader could be wasted if Ansar’s seasoned campaigners don’t mesh quickly and remain fit throughout the season.
SALAM ZGHARTA: Last season: 2nd This season: 5th
With three high caliber foreigners and a strong youth system, the north Lebanon side will continue to compete for a top five finish. Last season’s runners-up Salam Zgharta will be no pushover for teams this year.
With former national coach Theo Bucker taking over the helm, Tripoli have a man who is no stranger to Lebanese football. Look for the north Lebanon team to give opponents a tough battle in each and every game. Tactics and attention to detail will be important for the side as they don’t have the talent to rival other clubs. With one of the toughest environments to play at for opponents, Tripoli will be a midtable team at the end of the season.
Another poor offseason saw Safa sell one of the league’s top defenders in Ali Saade and starting national team goalkeeper Khalil to rivals and reigning champions Ahed. Midfield stalwart Ahmad Jalloul was sent to Nejmeh in a swap deal that saw Mohammad Jaafar head in the other direction. Despite financial instability, the team was able to win the league in 2016, but since then have lost six starters and failed to sign adequate replacements. One positive for the squad was the late addition of underrated local defender Jad Noureddine from Indonesia. Look for the team to finish mid-table.
Newly promoted and competing in the first division for the first time since the club’s inception in 2006, Shabeb signed Lebanon’s all-time leading cap earner Abbas Atwi to bring much-needed experience. With an ambitious club president, Shabeb, who shares a practice facility with Safa, will look to usurp their neighbors as the leaders of Wata al-Musaytbeh. Former Safa winger Hatem Eid may break out in his second season with the team after failing to make an impact at his old club.
The south Lebanon team will continue to be the hard-nosed outfit they have been known to be. They will, however, need to fill the void left by the retired Antar both on and off the field in order for the club to remain in the top tier. Taking advantage of their home field will be key to survival.
Despite at times having a seemingly unstable future, the club was able to eke out a top-five finish last season. With the addition of some decent domestic talent and three foreigners, the Bekaa side will continue to pose a threat to visiting teams as well as away from home.
AKHAA AHLI ALEY
In and out of the first division in recent years, the Aley side will look to prove doubters wrong and remain in the league. Following some shaking up in the administration, the club achieved much-needed stability after Secretary-General Wael Chehayeb was granted more power. The club was able to sign some solid local players and their foreigners have often surprised spectators with their high football-IQ. Former Nike “The Chance” Finalist Alex Khazzaka will make an impact on the league after finding form following a severe knee-injury.
The second promoted side did not make any major offseason moves to show their ambition of survival in the top flight. Look for the team to endure a difficult year against some quality opposition and face relegation at the end of the year.
Abbas Atwi transferred to Ansar over the summer.