Words by Martin Lowe
When the Western world (all be it very) occasionally scans their eye over the goings-on in the Gulf football landscape, the general perception is that the football is money-driven, in some way soulless and enhancing a reputation that hasn’t been earned with “true footballing history”. Well, as many Asian football lovers can protest, this is a rather hypocritical view concerning the English Premier League’s expansion over the last decade, but some of the times we can all agree that it can ring true.
One encounter in the ACL quarter finals squares up two Gulf sides that lie at different ends of the “heritage” spectrum. Saudi giants Al-Hilal are the embodiment of establishment, one of the greatest sides in the whole of Asia, let alone the West Asian region; they have a great history of winning trophies, recording high attendances and competing on the continental stage. However, in the other corner comes a newly-emerged power in Qatari champions Lekhwiya, who divide opinion across the footballing world when you consider their infancy and rapid rise to success.
Lekhwiya are set to take place in their sixth consecutive year in Qatar’s top league and have won it 4 times in their 5 attempts, with no previous history (only establishing as a club at the beginning of the decade); coupled with the vast amount of resources at their disposal, they have made more enemies than friends. Even on this site, their “nationalising” procedure, in pursuit of squeezing in as many exports as possible into one squad has caused many a debate that has taken up enough posts so far.
However, the fact is Lekhwiya are the dominant force in Qatar with aspirations of meeting the level of their hosts on Tuesday of becoming a consistent force in West Asia. Their two-legged victory over fellow QSL side Al-Sadd (often portrayed as the “heritage” club of the nation) cemented their dominance in the country weeks after clinching their 4th title in 5, ensuring they equalled their previous best in the ACL tournament.
The question is can Lekhwiya now raise their performance to the next level? In the run up to the domestic season, which is yet to kick start, they have swatted away the likes of Al-Fujairah and a select Iraqi national side whilst succumbing to European outfits Malaga and Bursaspor earlier this month. This is not ideal preparation, given their quarter final peers have had some tangible competitive action on the pitch in the lead up to the encounter, so many have already questioned Lekhwiya’s limited power to overcome Hilal.
Personnel-wise, Lekhwiya also look remarkably weak for their high standards. Their injury list is continually racking up as influential centre back Chico Flores joins Vladimir Weiss on the side-lines, while experienced talisman Sebastian Soria has moved on from the club in the transfer window. In his place comes erratic national team striker Mohammed Muntari (who is another that divides SFG opinion), while further pressure will no doubt fall on the shoulders of Youssef Msakni, who scored twice against Al-Sadd in their last competitive outings and Korean wizard Nam Tae-Hee.
All this uncertainty leaves Lekhwiya as an unpredictable but dangerous prospect. Even in the dugout we are faced with the new name of Djamal Belmadi who takes over from Michael Laudrup who left during the summer. Belmadi is an inventive coach who excelled as Qatari national boss, leading the nation to Gulf Cup glory at the end of last year before seeing his great initial work crumble to dust at the Asian Cup, leaving the once bright new thing of Gulf football with somewhat of a point to prove.
And what a task it’ll surely be. The hosts for the first leg Al-Hilal are no strangers to the latter rounds of AFC competition and have already kicked off their own domestic calendar in ominous fashion. Hilal a week ago clinched the first silverware of the season beating SPL champions Al-Nassr 1-0 in London for the Saudi Super Cup before opening up the regular season with a 2-0 home win.
Al-Hilal are built on the solid foundations of a plethora of Saudi internationals, but crucially for this season look to be complemented by a couple of eye-catching overseas additions. The Brazilian attacking duo of Carlos Eduardo and Ailton Almeida have from the get go impressed and notched debut goals over the last week and already look to have settled into the Saudis playing style alongside a revitalised Khaled Al-Kaebi and a back-in-form Nawaf Al-Abid.
While Lekhwiya are deeply hit by absentees, Hilal look to be returning to full strength. Salem Al-Dawsari is set to return for Hilal fresh from a continual domestic ban, while pantomime villain Nasser Al-Shamrani, current AFC Player of the Year, has timed his return from injury perfectly to appear in his first ACL match since he picked up an 8-match ban after last season’s controversial and ultimately doomed ACL final. Hilal are gaining form, seeing their best players return from injury/suspension and look to have a greater home advantage to build upon; this could well illustrate the strength in depth between the Gulf’s new money in Lekhwiya and Asia’s dependable footballing elite in Hilal.