Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ahli Al-Khaleel & Ittihad Shujaiyah meet with AFC Cup berth on the line

Palestine Cup Champions: There can be only one.

What: Palestine Cup Final 
When: August 6th // August 9th
Where: Yarmouk Stadium Gaza // Faisal Al-Husseini Stadium Al-Ram 

Inconsistent geography is one of the particularities of Palestinian football. Clubs that are top tier clubs compete in the West Bank, Gaza, and even Israeli leagues. So when it comes to determining the country's champion things can become quite tricky.  

Clubs competing in Gaza and the West Bank cannot compete against each other due to the realities on the ground. Gazan players face the same problems as the general public when it comes to entering and exiting the strip (the number of exit visas issued by Israel is around 4,000 a month- a tiny number considering the population of the area is well over 1 million) and this issue has prevented many a talented player from representing the national team. 

It's been 15 years since a club from the West Bank travelled to Gaza (or vice versa, for that matter) making this cup final an important one for a multitude of reasons. 

More after the jump....

Background

For all intents and purposes, the PFA has elected to send WBPL clubs as representatives of Palestine at Asian competition. Palestine had participated in continental club football in previous iterations before the incorporation of the AFC Champions League in 2002 and the AFC Cup in 2004 in their current formats. Gaza's Khadamat Rafah were no match for Iraq's Al-Quwwa Al-Jawwiya in the 1999-2000 season but the following season Hilal Al-Quds managed to progress pass Al-Ahli Sanaa (Yemen) in the preliminary stage. 

In 2001, Ittihad Shujaiyah hosted and beat Wehdat 2-1 in the first leg of an Asian Cup Winners' Cup preliminary (they would go on to lose the return leg 3-1). 

Internal discord and the start-stop nature of club football in Palestine meant that it would be 10 years before a Palestinian club would grace the continental stage again. 

When Palestinian clubs were invited back into the fold they were relegated to competing in the short-lived AFC President's Club. The PFA elected to send the WBPL to each edition- effectively relegating the Gazan league to the status of second tier on Palestine's football pyramid. 

When the tournament was scrapped one slot in the preliminaries was set aside for Palestinian teams.   

2015: A Banner Year

With Palestine's AFC Cup allocation increasing to 1.5 slots last year, Taraji Wadi Al-Nes did more than enough to prove that Palestinian clubs belonged at this level. In the end, the Bethlehem based club went undefeated at home and avoided defeat on four occasions- including a famous 1-0 win over Al-Shorta in Al-Ram. 

They were nearly joined in the group stage by 2013/14 Palestine Cup champions Hilal Al-Quds who succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat at the hands of eventual quarterfinalists Al-Jaish (Syria).

This year the title of Palestine Cup Champions will be a little less of a misnomer. For the first time ever, the champion of Gaza will meet the champion of the West Bank. The stakes have never been higher with a place in the 2016 AFC Cup preliminaries on the line. 

Outlook 

Ahli Al-Khaleel Manager Stefano Cusin

In terms of preparedness, Ahli Al-Khaleel has had one of the best preseasons of any club in the region. They have strengthened their ranks by adding Fadi Zidan (who became the first Palestinian to score a brace in the AFC Cup last year) and Mahmoud Wadi to complement Khaldoun Al-Halman in attack. 

Midfielder Roberto Kettlun who adeptly captained Hilal Al-Quds for the past four seasons will take up the same role for Ahli. In defense, national team stalwarts Ahmed Harbi and Abdallah Jaber should add an attacking verve on the flanks. 

To further prepare for the upcoming challenges this season, Stefano Cusin took his side on a preseason tour of Italy. The Hebronites played against the likes of Bologna and Atalanta, they lost both matches 1-0 but showed some positive signs along the way. The question surrounding this team is not if they will win silverware but how many pieces of it do they stand to win. 

For their part, Ittihad Al-Shujaiyah have done little in terms of reinforcing their squad. Their one move has been for the highly rated defender Maysara Al-Bawab. Furthermore, they will have to make due without key play Houssam Wadi after the PFA decided to prevent his participation due to the fact that he is still technically under contract with Al-Am'ary of the WBPL. 

If Ittihad Al-Shujaiyah are to overcome the odds yet again, the side will have to take advantage of the vociferous atmosphere. If they can take a lead into the second leg of the tie then an upset might well and truly be on the cards.