Ahed, Ne­jmeh square off in sea­son opener

Com­pet­i­tive sea­son ahead with Euro­pean ex­pe­ri­ence re­turn­ing for some clubs

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joseph Haboush

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.

TRIPOLI

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.

SAFA

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.

SHABEB AL-ARABI

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.

TADAMON SOUR

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.

Al-NABI SHEET

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.

AL-ISLAH

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.

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