Albania’s Partizani emerge top favorites for long-awaited Superliga title

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 10, 2018 16:58

Albania’s Partizani emerge top favorites for long-awaited Superliga title

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  • Having dominated the Albanian top league until the early 1990s with 15 titles, Partizani have been mostly uncompetitive during the past 25 years, and even spent several seasons in inferior leagues, but did not lose the popularity they enjoyed under communism as a club affiliated with the Albanian army and boasting fans all over the country

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TIRANA, Dec. 10 – Albania’s Partizani have emerged as top favorites to claim a long-awaited Superliga title this season in what could be a major triumph for an elite Albanian club that has been trophiless at the top flight of the country’s football during the past quarter of a century.

The Tirana-based club extended their Superliga lead to five points last weekend as they drew away to Teuta and main rivals, reigning champions Skenderbeu, the club that has dominated Albanian football during the past decade, suffered their second consecutive defeat.

Skenderbeu lost away to Kukes last weekend, in their third straight game without a win, reflecting uncertainties over the club’s future as they await a final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban handed earlier this year by European football governing body, UEFA, over match-fixing.

With the Switzerland-based court not having announced a date yet on the final say over Skenderbeu’s European competition future, chances are that the decision, the severest-ever handed to a European club, will be upheld or only slightly reduced, compromising Skenderbeu’s future as a leader in Albanian football.

Skenderbeu, who lost many of their key players this season over financial cuts, have been going through tough times over the past three weeks following a good season start, dominating until a few weeks ago.

Tirana-based Partizani, who have decently rivalled Skenderbeu at the Albanian Superliga during the past few years, are taking advantage of Skenderbeu’s recent poor form and are now top favorites to claim a long-awaited title.

Once the most successful Albanian club under communism, Partizani have struggled since 1993 when they claimed their last top league title in a tough transition period as the country switched to a multi-party system and a market economy following almost five decades under a hardline Stalinist dictatorship.

Having dominated the Albanian top league until the early 1990s with 15 titles, Partizani have been mostly uncompetitive during the past 25 years, and even spent several seasons in inferior leagues, but did not lose the popularity they enjoyed under communism as a club affiliated with the Albanian army and boasting fans all over the country. Partizani only claimed two Albanian Cup trophies during the past 25 years and turned competitive only in the 2015-2017 campaigns when they finished second.

The Reds are now two games short of being crowned Superliga winter champions and face a tough test against third-placed Kukes, the surprise 2017 champions, in a home encounter set for Friday, Dec. 14.

Partizani feature goalkeeper Alban Hoxha, the sole domestic league player to receive a call-up for the Albanian national side by Italian coach Christian Panucci.

Last summer, Partizani signed So Hyon-uk, a North Korean international who played as a midfielder in top Bosnian and Serbian leagues for a couple of seasons before moving to Albania last summer, when he became the first-ever player from isolated North-Korea to play in Albania.

Partizani’s top scorer so far this season is Jasir Asani, an ethnic Albanian from neighbouring Macedonia, who has scored four goals for the Reds.

The club is coached by Skender Gega, a former Partizani player who also managed the Albania U19 and U21 teams from 2011 to 2015.

“I think we are on track. Last year, there was much fanfare from new arrivals, but it’s much quieter now. I am pleased with this group of players, we have no pressure to become champions but the desire is so strong and time will tell,” Gega said last August ahead of the championship’s kick off, few months after taking over as new Partizani coach.

Partizani take to this year’s campaign in an Albanian-led team after a failed short-term experience with an Italian duo last year.

Partizani’s 2017-18 campaign project with Lucciano Moggi, the former Juventus managing director who is suffering a lifetime ban from Italian football for his role in the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal, and former Juventus player Mark Iuliano who only had a short spell as Partizani coach, failed to produce any result with Partizani ranking fifth and failing to progress through the Europa League qualification campaign last season.

Meanwhile, Albania’s historically most successful club, Tirana, continue facing problems this season following their Superliga comeback after an embarrassing first-ever relegation last year.

Last October, Tirana sacked Brazilian coach Ze Maria who led them to Superliga promotion, but managed to get only six points in the last eight games under a new Albanian coach to see themselves rank seventh, just above the relegation zone and its Superliga stay still uncertain under lackluster performances.

Durres-based Teuta are also decently rivalling this year, ranking fourth and trailing leaders Partizani by six points this year after hardly managing to escape relegation last season.

However, with 20 other matchdays to go and new reinforcements expected in the winter transfer window, everything is likely to remain uncertain amid tough rivalry by three clubs and the winner be decided only by the end of May 2019 when the championship officially ends.

The Albanian Superliga features 10 teams, two of which are relegated following a four-stage 36-game championship.

 

Skenderbeu’s future at risk

Uncertainties over the final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban, continue to keep the situation tense at Korça-based Skenderbeu whose players had been promised revised contracts by late 2018 when the club initially expected a final say.

In case the severe ban is upheld, or only slightly revised, the finances of Albania’s most successful club on European stage, could receive a severe blow and Skenderbeu, will apparently no longer afford key players and rival for the Superliga title without key European competition income.

Skenderbeu claimed their eighth Superliga trophy last season, with seven of their titles earned during the past decade when they dominated Albanian football and became the first ever Albania club to make it to the Europa League group stage with two appearance in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns.

The 10-year ban and a €1 million fine handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, in March 2018 made Skenderbeu ineligible to compete in this season international competition where Albanian clubs failed to make it to the group stage of either the Champions League or Europa League.

UEFA’s disciplinary body handed Skenderbeu the ban over 50 matched the club is suspected to have fixed in the Champions League and Europa League campaigns as well as in the Albanian Superliga and in friendlies since 2011 based on its betting fraud detection system. The new ban follows an earlier 2016-2017 ban from the UEFA Champions League campaign, which the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld following Skenderbeu’s appeal.

Skenderbeu deny claims and are hopeful of overturning the UEFA punishment, the severest ever handed to a European club, but prospects are Skenderbeu could be lucky to get away with a reduction of their 10-year ban.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 10, 2018 16:58