LEKHWIYA and Al Rayyan are two titans of the Qatar Stars League (QSL).
The Cops are the leaders and only unbeaten side in the league while the latter, nicknamed the Lions, are the holders, whose irresistible brand of football brought the crowds back to the stadiums as they waltzed their way to the title last season.
And when they clashed last week, there was nothing much to choose between them as they shared the spoils and two goals in a pulsating match.
Lekhwiya are on 50 points now while Rayyan stay third on 41.
Rayyan, who lost too many points at the start of their campaign besides suffering crushing defeats against Al Gharafa, Al Sadd and Al Khor in December, came to the crucial meeting on a high, revelling in a six-match winning run.
On the other side, Lekhwiya were scoring goals at will, with Khor being at the receiving end in the previous round as they were mauled 6-0.
Youssef El Arabi, with three hat-tricks in the league so far, has been a constant thorn in the flesh of rival defenders.
Rayyan coach Michael Laudrup knew only too well about the danger that lurks in the form of El Arabi, but his defenders were just helpless to stop Lekhwiya’s Moroccan striker who scored his 21st goal of the campaign.
Earlier, El Arabi had given them a reprieve when his header missed the bar by a whisker and that was Lekhwiya’s only clear chance in the first half. However, his 77th-minute effort, which gave them the lead, had class written all over it.
“El Arabi is a fantastic scorer, so we had to keep him out as far as we could and I think for almost the whole game Gonzalo (Viera) and Musab (Kheder) did very well against him,” said Laudrup. “But two-three times, he came into the area and scored a goal.”
And what a goal that was!
El Arabi beat Rayyan’s offside trap and effortlessly controlled a Mohammed Tresor long pass with his first touch while his second, with the inside of the right foot, immaculately placed the ball past the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Omar Barry, who dived in vain.
Lekhwiya coach Djamel Belmadi said it was possible for El Arabi to break the league’s goal-scoring record.
“El Arabi came back from the Africa Cup of Nations with plenty of desire. We missed a striker like him last season and this time we got exactly what we wanted,” said Belmadi.
“Scoring goals is routine for him. He wants to break the record of Clemerson Soares (27 goals for Al Gharafa in 2007-08 season), so he has a personal challenge as well and that’s good for us,” he added.
Belmadi would be expecting more from his lethal striker, who scored 16 goals for Granada in the Spanish League last season, as Lekhwiya start their Champions League campaign with a match against the UAE’s Al Jazira on February 20 and continue the hunt for a fifth QSL title in seven years.
At the other end, Rayyan, with their famed attacking trio of captain Rodrigo Tabata, Sebastian Soria and Sergio Garcia, also carved out enough opportunities. While Tabata and Soria missed their chances, the former a glorious one at that, Garcia took his, expertly connecting Rayyan captain’s free-kick to make it 1-1 in the 83rd.
Laudrup was pleased with his team’s effort. He said this would be the kind of matches they should expect at the Champions League, where Rayyan start their campaign against UAE side Al Wahda on February 21.
But it now looks like Rayyan’s league challenge is all but over, though the Dane chose not to concede it yet.
As both Rayyan and Lekhwiya dropped points, Al Sadd took full advantage and thrashed Al Wakrah 3-1 — thanks to a brace from Xavi Hernandez and a rare goal from Khalfan Ibrahim — to close the gap with the leaders to just three points. With just six rounds to go, the stage is all set for a nail-biting finish.
Elsewhere, El Jaish registered their first victory in six matches in all competitions as they beat Al Shahaniya 2-1 while Al Gharafa lost to 0-2 to Al Arabi.
In other matches, Al Kharaitiyat beat Al Sailiya 2-1, Muaither held Khor 2-2 and Umm Salal and Al Ahli played out a 1-1 draw.