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Nov 26 - Dec 8, 2019
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Fierce rivalry, keen contests and surprises to light up QSL

Al Sadd and Duhail SC will be the frontrunners as 12 teams battle it out for the top honours in a marathon QSL season.
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IQ Photo: Vinod Divakaran

The euphoria generated by Qatar’s stunning win in the Asian Cup can still be felt in the Doha’s summer air. It was seven months ago that Felix Sanchez’s men produced a stirring run to lift the continental title for the first time with a 3-1 win over Japan in the final. The excitement and energy generated by that win will remain the driving forces as the country prepares for its big goal – the 2022 World Cup. The same forces will power the start of the new domestic season as well.

The Qatar Star League will indeed have an extra spotlight trained on it from here on, for it will feature the cream of talent that conquered Asia. The Class of 2019 will demand attention as the 12 teams tussle over the course of the season to earn the right to be called Qatar champions. Featuring 132 matches, it will be a marathon where only the fittest survive.

Four months ago, Al Sadd showed their might in that marathon, dominating the competition in an unprecedented manner. Amassing 57 points and striking an awe-inspiring tally of 100 goals at an incredible rate of 4.5 per game, the Wolves devoured their rivals one by one before claiming the Falcon Shield with a game to spare. Their nearest challengers, Duhail SC, were seven points behind, while third-placed Al Sailiya were a whopping 19 points down.

Sadd’s outstanding run, however, could not mask two failures. They could not make the final of the QSL Cup and then suffered a bruising defeat against Duhail in the Emir’s Cup final. Those setbacks showed even the Wolves are not invincible, but the champions have moved on since then, taking on and prevailing over Duhail on two different platforms – in the AFC Champions League and the Sheikh Jassim Cup.
Contours of a compelling rivalry were apparent in these clashes, bringing face to face the cream of the Qatari footballing talent. It also showed that despite Sadd’s victories, there is not a huge gap between the two teams. Guided by two ambitious and competitive individuals in Xavi Hernandez and Rui Faria, Sadd and Duhail indeed are set for a serious title chase this season, with interesting questions popping up in the fans’ minds.

The managerial skills of Xavi, who took over the Sadd reins after donning their colours for the four previous seasons, will be on top of that list. The long league season, accompanied by the prospects of injuries and loss of form, will offer a closer examination of the Spaniard’s temperament and tactical acumen. Given his mature, calculative ways as a player, Sadd fans can expect a calm approach, but the coach’s seat can turn even the calmest of men into fuming mini-volcanoes.

Sadd’s cutting edge superiority warranted hardly any pep talk from the sidelines last season. Their only defeat came in the first-leg clash against Al Ahli, but the Wolves exacted sweet revenge with a 7-1 thrashing in the second, a win that confirmed their 14th league title.

The personnel who scripted that successful run remain more or less the same. Featuring quite a few players from the Asian Cup-winning national squad, Sadd have little worry when it comes to men in key positions. But the elevation of Xavi will leave a void in the midfield which will be difficult to fill. South Korean Nam Tae-Hee, who joined from Duhail this season, certainly has a hard task ahead while national team captain Hassan Al Haydos’ performances have truly been encouraging. But a frontline featuring Akram Afif and Baghdad Bounedjah – the scorer of a record 39 league goals last season – has a big reputation to live up to.

Duhail, despite determined displays, had to endure disappointments in the league, with a defeat to bottom-placed Al Khairatiyat in the penultimate round being quite a humbling moment. Another defeat, to Al Gharafa in the QSL Cup final, tarnished their season but at the very end, they salvaged some pride with the Emir Cup triumph. The reverses in the AFC Champions League as well as in the Sheikh Jassim Cup have shown there is plenty of room for improvement.

Faria’s men are terrific competitors though and the Red Knights can be expected to steel themselves to bridge the gap. Their task is made tougher by the departure of Youssef El Arabi, joint-second on the scoring list with 26 goals last season, to Olympiakos in Greece. Almoez Ali, the forward who made heads turn at the Asian Cup with nine goals, will have to strike a partnership with new Iraqi recruit Mohanad Ali to shore up Duhail’s attack.

Duhail’s backline was the best in the league last season, letting in just 17 goals, the least among the 12 teams. But the evidence from the three matches so far suggest they have weaknesses, especially on the left, which were exploited adroitly by Sadd. Faria will certainly work on that concern. The Portuguese coach’s never-say-die attitude is a factor that fires Duhail on in their chase of Sadd. No doubt, it will light up the league too, in the coming months.

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The rivalry between Al Sadd and Duhail SC will light up this season’s QSL. IQ Photo: Vinod Divakaran