Partizani beats Skenderbeu to keep alive decades-long title hopes

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 23, 2016 15:19

Partizani striker Caleb Ekuban

TIRANA, Dec. 23 - Partizani came from behind to beat reigning champions Skenderbeu 2-1 in a priceless victory to keep their title hopes alive and narrow their gap with Superliga leaders Kukes who were held to a draw by newly promoted Luftetari, this season's surprise team.

Italian-born Ghanaian striker Caleb Ekuban was Partizani's hero in Thursday's encounter, scoring a double to overtake Skenderbeu and climb to second, trailing Winter champions Kukes by one point. Ekuban, who joined Partizani only this season on loan from Italy’s Chievo Verona, has scored 9 goals with Partizani so far, only two fewer than top scorer Pero Pejic, the Croatian Kukes striker.

"If we maintain this pace and the team achieves its title target of course I would like to continue with Partizani," Ekuban told reporters after the match.

Sixth straight champions Skenderbeu are facing tough times this season after they were banned for one year from European football on match-fixing allegations and warnings they could face new sanctions by UEFA, the European football's governing body. The Snow Wolves failed to resist Partizani pressure after an early lead with Nigerian striker James. Former Albania international Hamdi Salihi, recently voted the Best 2016 player by Superliga coaches and captains, could not help Skenderbeu get a positive result.

Partizani coach Sulejman Starova said beating Skenderbeu at home was key to their Superliga bid.

"These are three points that count a lot psychologically to show that we are the ones who should win the championship. The title battle will continue through the end, but the three points with Skenderbeu whose supremacy has been undisputed are so important," said Starova.

The future of Skenderbeu's Italian coach Andrea Agostinelli is now in doubt following a series of poor performances. Agostinelli who last season coached Partizani blamed the result on the squandered opportunities and the departures of some key players from the club in the past couple of years. Kosovo international Bernard Berisha and Nigerian striker Peter Olayinka moved to Russia and Belgium top leagues in 2016 after Skenderbeu's Europa League debut, earning Skenderbeu a lot of money but leaving voids in the team's starting lineup.

"If I remain with Skenderbeu, we need January reinforcements. We need midfield and attacking players to give more quality to the team. Partizani withdrew in defence in the second half and we were not strong enough to break through them," he said.

Partizani is considered a key favorite to win a long-awaited Superliga title after more than two decades of trophiless seasons and relegation to inferior leagues. The Reds made a historic comeback to European club football last summer replacing Skenderbeu in the Champions League qualifying campaign after the Albanian champions were banned from European competition for 1 year over match fixing allegations.

Winter champions Kukes, the northeastern club with not much history in Albania’s football history, have been playing in the Superliga only during the past five years. They have provided impressive performance since their 2012 debut, finishing second four times and playing well even at the Europa League qualifying campaigns, being the only key rival to Skenderbeu who have dominated Albanian football in the past six years.

With the Superliga already halfway and 18 other weeks to go, a tight race is expected among the top three favorites Partizani, Skenderbeu and Kukes.

Newly promoted Korabi but also Laà§i, Teuta and Flamurtari will fight to remain in the Superliga where the bottom two are relegated.

The 10-team Albanian Superliga will resume on January 21, 2017 following the winter break.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 23, 2016 15:19