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Uri Levy

Middle East football season ends in fever pitch

The Turkish league is reaching a dramatic climax [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 16 May, 2019

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With football seasons in the Middle East coming to a close, there have been some unpredictable ends to league battles.

After a horrible season, which almost ended in historic relegation, Ittihad Jeddah have survived.

The season started with Ramon Diaz as coach and a loss in the Saudi Supercup. It continued under Slaven Bilic who saw the club drop to their lowest ever position in the Saudi League. Finally, things stabilised with the return of former Chilean coach Jose Luis Sierra.

Since Sierra took over the squad he has managed to guide the team to safe shores - seven points away from the relegation zone, where the team was placed for much of the season. With 11 victories in the last 15 matches - including hammering the Tigers from Jeddah - Sierra has really reversed Ittihad Jeddah's early misfortunes.

While in Saudi Arabia Ittihad were suffering, on a continental stage things were going right for the club. Ittihad had already secured their spot in the Asian Champions League knockout stage, and if Romarinho, Carlos Villanueva and Alexander Prijovic can continue their current run of form, their Asian rivals shouldn't underestimate the Saudi black and yellows.

But with the joy of survival, one thing still clouds their current achievements. Their star player, Fahd al-Muwallad - who scored 11 goals this season and was one of the major protagonists in the team's comeback - is in trouble after it was announced that the league's doping committee found a banned substance in his sample.

Muwallad isn't the first Ittihad star to face doping charges. Mohammed Noor was in a similar situation and was banned from football for four years following doping charges and has since retired from football.

A new era in Iranian football

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Marc Wilmots is the new national team manager for Iran. The rumour that he was to take over the team had been circulating for ten days with the 50 year-old Belgian finally agreeing terms (reportedly for $1.5m a year for three years) with the Iranian Football Federation for the Team Melli job.

Following a great nine years with Carlos Queiroz in charge, Iran have been looking for a new gaffer since the end of the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. Plenty of names circulated: Herve Renard, Morocco's French coach, as well as Slaven Bilic and Alexander Nouri. Eventually, Iranian football officials decided to go for the most conservative option - a coach known for his unattractive style of play and problematic man-management relations.

Wilmots is an unpopular choice among Iranian football fans and analysts alike. His coaching history includes a below average spell with one of the most talented teams in the world - Belgium - and a failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup with the Ivory Coast.

Iranian football officials decided to go for the most conservative option - a coach known for his unattractive style of play and problematic man-management relations.


With that said, Wilmots can add some experience to a talented generation of Iranian footballers. He has dealt with superstars, he managed teams on two continents, and it could offer a fresh start for the Iranians. Besides, almost any choice after Queiroz would have been a disappointment for fans, unless it was a more prominent name. In that case, Wilmots has more credibility than Renard or Nouri.

All in all, Wilmots starts his time as Iran's coach with a huge question mark hanging over him and mixed feelings from the fans. As football is as unpredictable as it gets, the Belgian will be tested by the results the Iranian team produces in the long run.

A new era starts in the best football nation in Asia.

Jerusalem's Pride

The Palestinian West Bank Premier League enjoyed a boiling final day, with three teams fighting for the title - Hilal Al-Quds (Jerusalem), Shabab Al-Khaleel (Hebron) and Shabab Balata (Nablus).

Last Friday, all matches kicked off at the same time in a great night of football across the West Bank. While the Jerusalemites were leading the table at the beginning of the day, they had a hard match ahead - a derby against Jabel Mukaber.

Shabab Al-Khaleel hammered Taraji Wad al-Nes 3-1, Balata beat Markz Tulkarem 2-0 away, while Hilal trailed by two goals at half-time.

In the second-half, the blue side of Jerusalem completed a heroic comeback thanks to a hat-trick from the Jabel Mumkaber-born Mahmoud Awesat who made it 3-2 for Hilal.

Hilal Al-Quds, who was busy in the past month with the AFC Cup, have retained the Palestinian title for the third consecutive season.

Turkish Delight

From Jerusalem to Istanbul, where the title race is traditionally one of the most interesting in Europe.

Istanbul Basaksehir led the table for the majority of the season, but in recent weeks the newcomers began to drop points, and in Turkey there is always someone ready to collect them. Galatasaray were running after the opportunity to do so, and on Saturday evening finally got what they were looking for.

In a game against Rizespor, Galatasaray went 2-1 down, but after controversial penalty in extra time, they managed to equalise and later on scored the winning goal.

Mbaye Diane converted the spot kick and nailed the third goal and Galatasaray are on top of the table with 66 points thanks to a better goal difference than Basaksehir. Besiktas are placed third and waiting for both of them to slip up. On Wednesday, Galatasaray won the Turkish Cup and gained their first title for the season.

With two games to go in the league, anything - literally anything - can happen. This is Turkey.

 

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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