One weekend, three games, all the information.
We are almost at the end of the season. Most players have started to plan their vacations, but that's not what we are going to do. Yet!
We will make another visit to China to check the derby of Guangzhou, we’ll ride our camels to Baghdad for another derby that keeps Iraq’s football spirit alive, and flight to Minsk, for a real a glory match, the Belorussian cup final.
(All the hours are in CET local time)
Saturday, 1335, Guangzhou R&F – Guangzhou Evergrande (Chinese Super League)
This is our second visit to the developing league of China. After our last fixture from China has been great, our return will be even better – the derby of Guangzhou. The city is one of the largest in China, a metropolitan of 25 million people, so you can imagine the atmosphere of the two crowds. Guangzhou R&F are making a slow progress, and the patience is definitely worth it. After years in the bottom places of the top tier, the club finished in the 3rd place and this season they played for the first time in the continental competitions, as their debut season in the AFC Champions League ended with group stage elimination. This season they ranked in 5th place, but are looking towards another ticket for the Asian Champions League. Their manager is the Romanian, Cosmin Contra, who replaced someone we already met in China, Sven-Göran Eriksson. The main players of the squad are Abderrazak Hamdallah, who scored 25 goals in 29 games since his arrival, Zhang Yaokun, a veteran Chinese player that was part from Dalian Shide dynasty in the beginning of the millennium, and Park Jong-woo, who won the bronze medal with South Korea in 2012 Olympic Games.
Guangzhou Evergrande knows a thing or two about being successful. The 2013 AFC Champions League title holders are trying to keep their great run, wishing for a fifth consecutive title. They are now in the 2nd place, one point behind Shanghai SIPG, but everything can happen in the next 20 league games. After Marcelo Lippi left, Guangzhou Evergrande tried to find another Italian manager, and surprisingly chose Fabio Cannavaro, an Italian legend as a player, at the time with almost no experience as a coach. The team is based on Brazilian superstars, Ricardo Goulart, who arrived this season and already scored eight goals, and Elkeson, the Chinese Super League Golden Boot winner in the past two seasons. Besides of them, the team have also Gao Lin, the team's all-time top scorer, Feng Xiaoting, who made 45 caps for the Chinese national team, and Wang Shangyuan, a great local talent who played for Club Brugge.
It's derby time in Guangzhou, and for sure it will be hot and spicy!
Friday, 1400, Al Shorta – FC Baghdad (Iraqi Premier League)
Even when the fights in Iraq are still ongoing and ISIS is destroying major parts of the country, the football is still the main part of the Iraqi national spirit. The local league just started its final stage last week and the format is simple – the best eight teams are divided to two groups, each will play a double round-robin, and afterwards each of the group winners will play the league final.
Al Shorta, the reigning champions, have a great chance to win the title for the third consecutive time. The domination of Al Shorta in the 60's seemed so far, until 2013, when they won the silverware for the first time in 15 years. In the first stage they made a great run without losing, and last week they won 4:1 against Al Zawraa. Even in the problematic situation of Iraq, Al Shorta have foreign players like the Cameroonian Innocent Awoa, who was part of the club's last titles. In addition there are a lot of great players from the Arab world like the Syrian Hamdi Al-Masri, who was the club's MVP last year, Dhurgham Ismail, an Iraqi youngster who was one of the best players in the last AFC Asian Cup, and Salem Shaker, 33 years old defender who made 84 caps for Iraq national team.
It's not the ‘official’ derby of Baghdad, as FC Baghdad are not a serious rivals for Al Shorta, but will definitely try to leave an impression. The club was never a stable one, and even their name changed several time. In the 60's and 70's, the Iraqi teams were usually assigned to national departments, and while Al Shorta kept their name and the police’ support (shorta in Arabic is police شرطة), FC Baghdad changed its ownership between the Baghdad Municipality, the Transportation Department and the Water Department. In the past few years it became an independent team, free from any government symbols. Watch out for Haidar Obeid, who previously played in Cyprus, Iran and Bahrain, Qusay Habib, Syrian national team’s midfielder, and Mustafa Ahmad, who won the Military World Cup two years ago with the Iraqi Army team.
In the divided and bleeding country of Iraq, football is a symbol of hope for normal life. Let's hope together that this match will be enjoyable and entertaining for the fans to watch.
Sunday, 1600, BATE Borisov - Shakhtyor Soligorsk (Belarussian Cup)
While the league in Belarus is in its beginning, the cup final is already here. BATE Borisov, the current champions, will face Shakhtyor Soligorsk, the current cup holders. In March, both of the teams played in the Belarussian Super Cup, when BATE won 3:0 after penalty shootouts.
There is no doubt that BATE Borisov is the best club in Belarus today. Their impressive performances in the European competitions and their 9 consecutive championships show it clearly. They opened the season with a great record of five wins and a two draws, leading the table easily. They also didn't lose in their last 39 league matches, which is the current worldwide longest sequence for an undefeated team. Despite they won the championship several times, they won the cup only twice. Their key players are Vitali Rodionov, the team's top scorer, Dzmitry Likhtarovich, the veteran goalkeeper who plays for the team since 2001, and Ihar Stasevich, who scored the decisive penalty in the Super Cup.
From the other hand, Shakhtyor Soligorsk knows that this is their chance to win a title. Shakhtyor won the cup last season, and in order to win the title once again they need to face against the history – in every season since 1996, the defending Belarusian cup holders failed to defend it. Shakhtyor Soligorsk didn't lose yet in the league, but their performance is less impressive than BATE's – three wins and four draws. The dominant players are Saulius Mikoliūnas, a Lithuanian who played for Hearts from Scotland, Alyaksandr Yurevich, who played over than 200 matches for the club, and Mikalay Yanush, last season's league top scorer. Soligorsk´s coach is Sergei Borovsky, Dynamo Minsk greatest players of all time, and a key player in its sole Soviet championship in 1982.
The champions and the cup holders in a match for a title – It doesn’t get any better than that for Belarusian football.