IF ONE wondered whether Al Sadd coach Jesualdo Ferreira knew how to sport a warm smile, then his players proved that assumption wrong by making him happy with some really impressive performances in the first phase of the Qatar Stars League.
Sadd’s rejuvenation, after their sub-standard show last season, and subsequent emergence under the Portuguese as strong title contenders are among the few brightest spots of the league, which has been hindered by a host of factors, including a slump in overall competitive level, non-payment of players’ wages by some clubs and champions Al Rayyan’s struggle for consistency.
Four-time champions Lekhwiya lead the standings on 33 points and, like Sadd, are unbeaten so far, but Ferreira’s men have been far more impressive, especially in their recent dismantling of Rayyan (5-0) and mid-table rivals Umm Salal (8-0).
Lekhwiya too ended the first phase with a 10-0 rout of Al Shahaniya, but their coach Djamel Belmadi will have no problem in agreeing that his men have not been their usual selves.
El Jaish, who are eager to win their maiden league title, led the standings for most part of the first phase but, like last season, a spate of injuries have pegged them down.
Coach Sabri Lamouchi should be happy to welcome back Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah, who missed the first phase due to an injury after emerging as the joint top scorer along with Rayyan’s Rodrigo Tabata (21 goals) last season.
Yet, it would be frustrating for the Frenchman to see more players getting injured, with young talent Ahmed Moein being the latest to be sidelined.
Al Gharafa, who have struggled for form over the last few years, have bounced back this time, that too after suffering defeats in the first two rounds. They look capable of giving the title challengers a run for their money and possibly having a go at the title.
Rayyan, who were in marauding form last season, having won the title with five matches to spare, have been a pale shadow of themselves. The club management signed former Real Madrid and Barcelona star Michael Laudrup as coach after league-winning Jorge Fossati left for the Qatar national team after two rounds. But the Dane, who helped Lekhwiya win the league shield in the season before last, have not been able to bring the best out of his players so far.
Equally disappointing has been the performance of Al Arabi, who made a host of high-profile signings and tall claims about regaining the title. But non-payment of salary dues to many ex-coaches and players saw the Qatar Football Association (QFA) stopping them from fielding foreign recruits in their opening match against Al Sailiya. Financial problems continued to affect them and Uruguayan coach Gerardo Pelusso was fired midway through the phase after they lost matches one after the other. Under Brazilian Edison Aguirre, they have showed signs of a comeback.
Seven clubs changed coaches, with Al Shahaniya doing it twice.
With four teams set to be relegated this season, the clubs are desperate to stay safe. Coaches often bore the brunt while bottom sides like Al Wakrah, Al Kharaitiyat, Muaither and Shahaniya changed some of their foreign players as well.
Muaither and Shahaniya, generally considered as punching bags at the start of the season, put up fighting displays but Lekhwiya left a big dent on the latter’s image and confidence by handing them a 10-0 defeat in the 13th round which also cost Portuguese coach Jose Fernando his job.
Referees were portrayed as villains in many matches, but the QFA persisted with local officials in majority of the games.
The attendance at venues continued to be thin. It was disappointing to see Rayyan supporters deserting the team, after having cheered them on all the way to title last season. The resurgence of Rayyan and Arabi are vital to the league’s success. DSP