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Uri Levy

Ending the silverware drought: This week in Middle East football

Raja Casablanca have taken their first continental title since 2003 [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 27 November, 2018

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As Sharjah FC continues to chase their first trophy since 2003, Saudi side Ittihad Jeddah continues to disappoint fans despite a multi-million dollar spend, writes Uri Levy.

One of the best stories in Middle Eastern football this season is coming from the UAE.

Imagine a club that hasn't won any silverware since 2003, winning their last championship title back in 1996 - but, suddenly, in 2018, is experiencing a flourishing season in a league that for years belonged to just three clubs.

Meet Sharjah FC, the Emirati club that is counted as the new "black horse" of the Arabian Gulf League.

Under the guidance of Coach Abdul Aziz Al-Anberi, the club from Sharjah City is currently on top of the table, with a few great results against the country's top clubs.

So far, they've beaten reigning champions Al-Ain, Shabab Al-Ahly, Al-Nasr and Al-Dhafra, and are leading the table without a single loss and with a two-point gap from Al-Jazira and Al-Ain.

Usually, it takes at least ten matchdays to judge whether a team is capable of running keeping up with the big boys at the top of the league, and now we're here, Sharjah is showing they can. Along with striker Wellinton Soares, who has scored 11 goals in 10 matches, Ryan Mendes, the Cape Verdean midfielder had scored four. Igor Coronado has provided seven goals and multiple assists.

Then there's the Uzbek midfielder, Otabek Shukurov, who stabilised the team's lineup with his solid presence in the middle.

Winning by such a margin doesn't mean we don't have our problems



In a strategic move, they decided practically to focus on the league only, in a bid for silverware. Sharjah was eliminated in the League Cup after five losses - when they played their second-strength roster to keep their most important players fresh for the league games, allowing them playing open and attractive football.



Earlier this season, they won 6-3 against an Al-Nasr squad led by superstar duo Alvaro Negredo and Yohan Cabaye.

But the shock result failed to faze coach Al-Anberi. "Winning by such a margin doesn't mean we don't have our problems," he reflected. "We need to work on staying focused during the entire 90 minutes and not letting in any goals."

Will Al-Anberi and his players will go all the way in the Gulf? It is still early in the season, and with the Asian Cup on the horizon, this season in the Emirates will be a turbulent as it gets.

One thing is sure - no-one (except maybe Al-Anberi) expected such a positive start in Sharjah. Can they beat the country's "eternal clubs" in the race to the title?

Problems in Jeddah

From one going up to one sinking down.

There were so many expectations of Saudi club Ittihad Jeddah this season. The Tigers had made big moves on the transfer market, signing Brazil's Romarinho from Emirati Al-Jazira and Moroccan-Dutch Kareem Al-Ahmadi from Feyenoord, while bringin back Fahed Al-Muwallad from his loan spell at Levante.

Argentinean coach Ramon Diaz was hired as manager, in what was supposed to be the club's comeback season after years of watching their great rivals - Al-Hilal Riyadh and city rivals Al-Ahli - vanish ahead of them in a cloud of dust.

But despite a squad worth almost 30 million euros, and new investment of 26 million on the transfer market, Ittihad has failed to produce a single victory since the beginning of the season.

Bilic, who coached Croatia's national team, as well as West Ham and Besiktas, is suddenly facing one of his career's largest challenges



It started badly with a loss to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Supercup held in London, and continued with three losses in the first four league matches. Diaz was sacked, and at the end of September the club signed former West Ham United gaffer Slaven Bilic. But even this is yet to turn things around for the Jeddah mega-club.

After ten matchdays, the team is last in the Saudi Pro League, with two points from 30. Ohod are in second-last place, with six points.

Bilic, who coached Croatia's national team, as well as West Ham and Besiktas, is suddenly facing one of his career's largest challenges: Taking one of the biggest clubs in the Middle East out of the relegation zone, and returning it to its glory days.

African Champions League

While the continental Champions Leagues are behind us, in Africa, the final whistle in the CAF Confederation Cup was only blown this week, with the final between Raja Casablanca and Congo's AS Vita.

The first match in the Mohammad V Stadium ended with a 3-0 victory to the Moroccans, who were chasing a first continental title since the CAF Cup of 2003.

The second leg in Kinshasa took place Sunday night, and it was quite a battle. While Raja took the opening goal, the Congolese team came back with three of their own, putting tremendous pressure on the Moroccans who defended their goal in heroic way. But at the final whistle, the second leg's 3-1 win to AS Vita wasn't enough to overturn the 3-0 deficit to Casablanca from the first leg, with the Moroccans winning on aggregate 4-1.

The city of Casablanca now has a second consecutive continental title, after Wydad's 2017 CAF Champions League title. Now it is the turn of the green side of town to celebrate.

 

 

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.



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