The Lebanese league will start tomorrow in bang when Nejmeh and Ansar face each other in the Beirut Derby. But before that, we asked Maroun Mahfoud, Nadim Afyouni and Rami Abou Diab about who they think will win it all? who will get relegated and who will play in the Elite Cup next July?
Title Winners: Ahed
This year, I think Ahed will win it for the fourth consecutive time. Even though the team was relatively quiet in what concerns the transfer market, they seem to have a more stable team than their rivals, Nejmeh and Ansar. Bassem Marmar focused on getting a quality striker to replace Martin Tuchev, who scored 10 goals from 14 apps, and got his wish with the Tunisian veteran Ahmad Al Akaishi. Bassem will also wish for Tarek Ali to be a good rotation player after the departure of Mohamad Kdouh to Bangladesh. Ahed will have no problem in the middle of the park.Rabih Ataya and Mohamad Haidar will be in charge of delivering the ball to the striker while a healthy competition behind them will take place between the Faour, Yaacoubo, Mounzer and Shour will bring the level of the yellow midfield to a higher level. Defensively, Ahed is the strongest team in the league after conceding only 9 goals and keeping 16 clean sheet in 22 games.
Elite cup : Ahed, Ansar, Nejmeh, Akhaa, Safa, Shabab Al Sahel
On the other side of the city, the Green Leaders will not lead the league table come May. The team seems to be very strong offensively though. Last season they finished 13 goals clear than the second most goal scorer team and they have added Hassan Maatouk too (he scored 40 goals in 41 games with Nejmeh). Looking at the other end of the team, things doesn’t seem so optimistic. The team acquired the services of the goalkeeper Nazih Assad and left back Alfredo Jraidini and still seem to receive a lot of goals and especially during counter-attacks. A problem I think coach Nizar Mahrous will address quickly and would be enough for them to secure a second position.
The bronze medal will be heading to Manara in the end of the season I think. Even though Nejmeh players will not play in Asia this year, they will still lack the pace against Ahed and Ansar. Coach Mohamad Abdel Azim will have a tough task to change the club from a one-man team to a real team after the departure of Hassan Maatouk to their eternal rivals. The newcomer Eddy Chehade will have fierce competition in his position by the likes of Khalil Badr and Ali al Hajj. Defensively, the burgundies improved with the signing of Abdallah Aish and Ali Saadi.
In my opinion, no team will come close to bug these 3 teams for the 3 top spots in the league while it will be worth it to keep an eye on the remaining 3 spots for the Elite Cup between Akhaa Ahli Alay, Burj, Safa and Shabab Al Sahel.
From where I stand, Burj will just miss the Elite Cup next July. They have acquired a lot of good talent after gaining their promotion from second division but I think it would not be enough to seal a top 6 spot. On the other hand, Shabeb el Sahel improved their bench and some position on the field by adding Youssef Baraket and Kelvin Daou. Safa mixed with their signings the youth and experience, they signed the likes of Yehya Hindi, Youssef Hajj and Daniel Abou Fakher while also signing the likes of Ahmad Jalloul and Alaa al Baba. The sixth team to make the Elite cup in my opinion will be none other than Akhaa Ahli Alay. They already were miles ahead of other clubs (except the top 3) and they fortified having signed permanently Ahmad Hijazi and Bilal Najdi.
Relegation : Shabab Al Burj, Tripoli
I think the teams that would get relegated in the end of the year would be Shabab Al Burj and Tripoli. Shabab Al Burj signed a lot of players but I don’t think they were of great quality; they will suffer in the long run of the season. In the north district of the country, things do not seem so fairy either. Tripoli improved on the offence having players like Abou Baker Al Mal and Ahmad Moghrabi while losing quality players in the back like Nazih Assaad and Abdallah Aish without really compensating such losses. It would be fun to see if the Northern team can score more than they concede in 90 minutes.
Top Goalscorer : Ahmad Al Akaishy
I think this one will go for Akaishy if he stays fit through the season. The Ahed star will wasted little time to show Ahed fans what he was capable of. I think he will benefit from the crowded offence at Ansar which will no doubt minimize the tally of his direct rival for the prize, Al Hadji Malek. Unfortunately, I don’t think any Lebanese player would be close to out-scoring these two.
Who will win it : Ahed
This year could be the year when Ahed’s hold on domestic football finally loosens. Their focus on the AFC Cup and the lack of depth upfront are two factors that could prove defining but the main reason is the strength of Ansar and what could happen to Ahed if they win the AFC Cup. Kdouh has already moved away and more could go if they reach their goal. Tensions between head coach Bassem Marmar and President Tamim Sleiman could lead to one of them leaving as well once they have reached their objective, leaving their two rivals the chance to pounce. Ansar are under pressure though after Nabil Bader has invested a lot of money to build a team, that includes National Team captain Hassan Maatouk, to win the league. But they have had three opportunities recently to win trophies and lost in all of the FA Cup, Elite Cup and Super Cup finals and defensively they still look weak. Nejmeh have lost Maatouk but they have a much stronger squad than last year, some really good youngsters ready to break through, and a manager who is intelligent and who seems to have brought some calm and positivity to the whole place. The title race will definitely be an interesting one, but despite there being a strong case to be made about Ansar and Nejmeh, Ahed still seem like the most solid and champion-like team and they look unlikely to drop many points or concede many goals, such is the strength of their backline and the character of the team which has gotten used to winning and doesn’t know how to give things away. There is still a slip-up in both Ansar and Nejmeh and I believe that in the end, Ahed’s experience and psychological toughness will get the job done to clinch a third successive title.
Elite Cup: Nejmeh, Ansar, Shabab Sahel, Akhaa Ahli Aley, Burj
Nejmeh and Ansar will be competing for second place not just for the bragging rights in this intense rivalry but also to increase chances of playing continental competition. I personally feel like Ansar are more likely blow up towards the end of the season: they have a massive squad with a lot of big players who will be probably be unhappy because of little game time, and the pressure on the players and the added difficulty of the AFC Cup could prove too much for them. Nejmeh are solid and, except for a remarkable upset in their second leg of the Arab Champions Cup, they will only have domestic football to occupy them. Shabab Sahel are a club on the rise with President Samir Dbouk doing a fantastic job there, especially with the stadium on the way. They have a built a really exciting team with a nice balance of enthusiastic young talents and reliable experience, and they have a lot of goals in them, as they showed in the Elite Cup final. That victory will give them massive confidence going into the season, and if Mahmoud Hammoud can keep them focused they will have a strong season and could go on a good cup run. Akhaa Ahli Aley is another club that does things properly and that has undergone a steady rise to become a regular in the Elite Cup places. The return of Ahmad Hijazi is a big bonus for them and along with Karim Darwiche and Carlos Alberto Akhaa will definitely score a good number. My only worry is the stability which has been their strength could turn into stagnation and allow for a team that has momentum on its side like Shabab Sahel or even Burj to come and take their place in fourth. Despite this, they are still a solid bet to finish in the top 6, especially on account of their home form, which is one of the best in the league. Finally, Safa have renovated their team and brought numerous exciting youngsters complemented by good experienced quality, but Burj have had a fantastic transfer summer and are flying off the back of a promotion and the Challenge Cup win. They have brought in players not just of top flight quality but of Elite Cup quality and they have fantastic strength in depth and an experienced coach to manage all of it. Plus, their special fanbase will make every team dread to play them and this will only push the players to do even better.
Relegation : Shabab Ghazieh, Shabab Al Burj
The relegation battle is going to be an intense one, with numerous clubs definitely bad enough to go down; the only hope will be that they are not of the worst two. Tripoli’s financial issues have once again led to a summer of turmoil and uncertainty, leaving them do all their business at the last-minute. But the signing of three prolific goalscorers in Al Badry, Bako and Moghrabi, should be enough to keep them up with talented young goalkeeper Ali Al Hajj Hassan replacing Nazih Asaad. Tadamon Sour have suffered similarly but their team might just be good enough that it’s not one of the worst two, and they have made interesting signings upfront in Kabiru Musa and Adnan Melhem which could work well, although it is at the other end where they will be saved, with goalkeeper Hadi Mortada a key part of their survival last year and he is only going to get better. Salam Zgharta just about escaped relegation last season and have since lost some very influential players, especially in attacking areas of the pitch. Their signings are not of the same level of the players they are replacing but Salam have good academy players coming through and will probably survive again this term, although I expect it to be close and wouldn’t be surprised if they do go down. But the teams I am tipping for relegation are Shabab Ghazieh and Shabab Al Burj. Shabab Ghazieh had a good first year in the first tier after getting promoted along with Shabab Sahel, as they proved tough to beat, with even Nejmeh dropping points to them. But they have lost the core of the team from last year, with goalkeeper and both starting centre-backs having been snapped up, while their two main sources of goals impressed enough to earn their place in better teams this season. And due to the financial trouble at the club, the replacements mainly come from local boys and young players brought in on loan from the top clubs. This will probably not be enough to replicate the effect that those five had on the team and I can definitely see Shabab Ghazieh suffering from second-season syndrome. Shabab Al Burj just got promoted and while they did strengthen heavily, it is mainly from young players coming from the top clubs or players being brought in from lower top-flight or second-tier sides. Mexican-born Nemr Lajud in goal and and former Barcelona B and Portugal u-20 international Agostinho are interesting signings and could play big roles for the team but I do not expect it to be sufficient to maintain their place in the top division.
Top Goalscorer : El Hajj Malick Tall
Ahed have brought in a fantastic player in Ahmad Akaichi whose CV speaks for itself and who will surely score loads of goals in Lebanon. But his history with injuries leaves me with doubts as to whether he can play the whole season, with this leaving Al Hajj Malick as the obvious candidate to win his third successive golden boot in the country, especially considering all the service he will be provided with. On the Lebanese side, there is no doubt in my mind that his Ansar teammate Hassan Maatouk will be there or there abouts, while Ahmad Hijazi, who was the top scoring Lebanese last year, will surely get a decent tally himself at Akhaa
Rami Abou Diab
Who will win it : Nejmeh
You will be surprised… but I think that Nejmeh will win it. Al Hazim was named the best coach of the 2018-2019 Oman League season. Nejmeh is the perfect mix between experience and youth. In defense, Ali Saade, Ali Hamam and Kassem Zein are known for their fighting spirit and their experience. In term of dynamics: Feyz Shamsin, Eddy Chehade, and even Khaled Talaji would be really helpful. Nejmeh won’t play the AFC Cup unlike Ansar and Ahed. They also have less players in the national team. It might be the season of Ali Hajj and Khalil Badr!
Elite Cup : Nejmeh, Ahed, Ansar, Safa, Shabab Al Sahel, Akhaa.
Real surprise here is the presence of Safa. Their coach Robert Jaspert knows the league and how to use wisely the players especially the youth ones. Safa didn’t invest a lot of money this season unlike Shabab Al Sahel and Bourj FC. They don’t have any kind of pressure unlike maybe to win against Akhaa Ahli Aley and to do something good in the Cup. They have very good midfield players: Ahmad Jalloul and Yehya el-Hindi. It will be the most experimental team. One shot… let’s see what will happen!
Shabab Al Sahel was the best team of the pre-season. What matters now is to know if they will be consistent or not throughout the season. Maybe they will lack consistency..
Akhaa Ahli Aley with Ahmad Hijazi can do wonder things. He is a very good striker, the best Lebanese scorer last season. Their home games will be really important. But it will be difficult to only rely on him all the season.
Bourj FC might be also in the top 6. Their fans are incredible. But it can be a negative factor for them if they don’t perform well in the first games of the season. Teams like Bourj FC are needed in the first division in order to bring more competition (derby vs Shabab Al Sahel) and entertainment.
Relegation : Shabab Al Bourj, Tripoli.
Shabab Al Bourj. Like Bourj, they have signed a lot of players but not the same quality, not the same division 1 experience. Experience can play an important role…
Tripoli. Even with the presence of Bako, Tripoli seems to lack stability especially financially. Salam Zgharta can rely on good young players. Tadamon Sour can rely on good foreign players as Kabiru Musa.
Best scorer: Ahmad Al Akaishy
Ansar have an armada so surely a distribution of scorers.
Most likely the Tunisian striker of Ahed : Akaichi.