THE hot and humid conditions of September had often pulled down the level of games in the opening rounds of the Qatar Stars League (QSL) in the past, but it could be different this time around.
With four teams set to be relegated following the QSL’s decision to revert the competition to a 12-team affair from the 2017-18 season, the lower-rung teams will strive to stay clear of the bottom half of the table from the start. Their fight for survival should force the big guns to approach every match with utmost focus knowing that any complacency would be punished. It should, in turn, raise the level of the league and make it far more exciting and competitive.
Four teams — Al Rayyan, El Jaish, Al Sadd and Lekhwiya — again look capable of winning the title this time, and they can be confident after retaining their coaches and almost their entire groups of players. Al Arabi, who have invested a lot in some wise signings, are eager to upset their plans as they aim to end their title drought running into almost two decades.
Rayyan had ended their 20-year-old wait last season, after they maintained a superior quality right from the start and turned the title race into a virtual no-contest midway through before sealing it with five matches to spare. It had left their challengers a bit frustrated, with Sadd ending up the season without any trophy. Jaish and Lekhwiya restored their pride by winning the Qatar Cup and Emir’s Cup respectively even though they would admit that league success has a different value. They are all prepared to make it happen this time.
Umm Salal and Al Gharafa, who take on Al Ahli in the lung opener on Thursday, should be eager to barge into the top four. Ahli and Al Sailiya are aiming for a mid-table finish while Al Khor, Al Kharaitiyat and Al Wakrah have the modest target of staying in the top flight.
Both Muaither and Al Shahaniya are ready for their second season in the premier division and their priority will be to avoid becoming the punching bags, like Mesaimeer suffered last time. Football is a game of glorious uncertainties and Qatar Sports Club’s relegation last season proves that even former champions cannot take things for granted. DSP
BIGGER RELEGATION TRAP
The most striking feature of the new season is that four teams will be relegated to the Second Division at the end of it. The move follows the Qatar Stars League’s decision to revert the competition to a 12-team affair, after it felt that its quality was getting diluted as some promoted teams were not competent enough. The fight for survival at the bottom should make the league competitive.
Of the 12 teams that stayed in the top flight, only Al Arabi and Al Ahli changed their coaches. It also means the main title contenders, Lekhwiya, Al Rayyan, Al Sadd and El Jaish, will all have a more or less familiar squad as their coaches did not tamper too much with it. Three clubs have French and Uruguayan coaches while others are from Tunisia, Portugal (two each), Algeria, Croatia, Bosnia and Turkey (one apiece).
DECREASING BRAZILIAN FLAVOUR
For the first time since its relaunch in 2008, the Qatar Stars League will not have a Brazilian coach. In the inaugural season, six of the 10 coaches were from the South American nation. It will be a conspicuous absence this time, considering that Qatar always had held Brazilian coaches in high esteem ever since Evaristo de Macedo guided them to a runners-up finish at the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championship and later helped them book their only berth so far at the Olympics.
RED-HOT OR DAMP SQUIB?
Pre-season signings make Al Arabi a strong team on paper, with their fans believing they can go all the way and win the title this time. The Qatar Stars League too will be happy to see Arabi deliver as they have a huge fan base. They have a new coach in Gerardo Pelusso and several fresh faces in their ranks including three foreigners. Arabi have struggled for consistency in the past and Pelusso’s immediate task will be to achieve that. Some good performances and positive results will bring the fans back. Pelusso will have only Thursday’s match against tricky opponents Al Sailiya in his mind at the moment.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Anyone curious to count the marquee names that have come to the Qatari clubs this season will be disappointed as barring Malian Seydou Keita, not many big stars have moved in. Even the former Barcelona midfielder has joined at El Jaish on a six-month deal. While the big clubs opted not to disturb their combination, also owing to the budget cuts forced by the falling oil price, the change of players has happened more at smaller teams. Kharaitiyat, who narrowly avoided relegation last time, have bought nine new players, including three foreigners.