[written by: Riaz Murad & Hashim Ghazi]
And then, there were four. We bid farewell to Jerusalem and Sham who put together impressive second-half campaigns that just fell short. Hejaz put on a Mourinho-esque tactical display en route to a 1-0 win over Sham to stamp their ticket in the postseason and dismiss Sham's potential late ditch effort to sneak in. Meanwhile, Andalusia finally got a win in what seems like ages against Jerusalem to end their hopes of sneaking out of last place. The final matchup saw Anatolia and Samarra play to the League's first ever 0-0 draw - something we would have never expected with the firepower featured in both sides. That brings us to the first leg of the semi-finals. #2 Anatolia takes on #3 Andalusia and #1 Samarra take on #4 Hejaz. Given the way the season played out, it's anyone's guess who will come out on top over two legs. Let's go into the matchups.
#3 ANDALUSIA (14 points, +5 GD) vs #2 ANATOLIA (16 points, +11 GD) (8:45PM Field 3)
A premium matchup looks to be on the cards for the first leg of the 2020 BISL Playoffs. Both matches between the teams have been very close with Andalusia winning one of the two during Week 3. Andalusia come into the playoffs on the heels of a well-fought 2-1 victory over Jerusalem on Super Sunday. The Spaniards have seen an up and down season that has seen them at the top of the league as well as middle of the pack. Although they were never threatened to be on the brink of missing the playoffs, GM Omar Sheikh has made it a point to his team that every game is a must-win game for them. This would have worked if the Blues didn’t have absences and injuries during the second half of the regular season. Andalusia is still waiting for a word on forward Asif Ali’s return. For now, he’s listed as day-to-day. But they have enough firepower still to take on any side in the league. Defensemen Owais Ansari and Ali Wadee have a tendency to run up the wings and threaten to score or at least make plays that lead to scoring chances. This creates a nightmare scenario for many teams. And with Omar El-Askalany dangling the ball in his feet and making plays, coupled with a power boot from Salman Siddiqui alongside the aforementioned GM, Andalusia packs a hard punch. It hasn’t always resulted in a convincing victory for them. Now that Super-Sub Saad K is not available for the playoffs, someone has to step in to make those crisp and accurate plays for the Spaniards, if they hope to make it to their first finals in BISL. They just need to ensure an injury free game. Anatolia, on the other hand, is no stranger to injuries. They’ve seen a very high rate of injuries this year and have had to say goodbye to a couple of solid contributors on defense because of them. However, the big positive for them has been the replacements. Both Shahar Yar and Waheed Isoufi have fit in perfectly into the system that GM Zain Khilji has set for his team. The month of January saw a resurgence for the Turks where they were finally getting healthy bodies back and saw the team perform as envisioned. With a full squad, this team is very dangerous. They’re always talked about as being a very high-powered offense but surprisingly, it’s their defense that has played a major role in getting the team to a second place finish in the regular season. The team boasts the #1 defense in the regular season. With goalie Zahid Merchant screaming orders from net, the defensive core for Anatolia has allowed very few teams to tickle the twine. The little talked about and quiet Hasan Afzal has been an anchor for the defense - he's been more than a "lil busy" as the Canaries' linchpin . He’s been covering the defensive zone as Komayl Jawadi and Shahar push up to help on the offense. Syed Kazmi and Fawad Akram have played every non-goalie position this season and force their opponents to think hard on how to play against them. And when factoring in workhorse Riaz Murad up front making the most of his chances, it's tough to find a chink in this bright yellow armour. This is a squad Khilji is banking on, and is confident in, to get him past the first round of the playoffs, FINALLY!
A matchup that will see one of these two teams get one step closer to BISL glory for the first time in their six year history. Starting the playoffs with a bang, we are.
#4 HEJAZ (14 points, -9 GD) vs #1 SAMARRA (18 points, +10 GD)(9:45PM Field 3)
Hejaz and Samarra take off in an affair that features two very different tactical approaches. In our earlier matchup, we see two teams that have never made the finals before, and in this one, we have a pair of teams in which one of them has featured in every finals to date. And the streak continues, as one of Hejaz or Samarra will punch their ticket to the Final in a few weeks time. The question is - who will it be?
Hejaz's gameplan is simple. Defend as a unit and rely on counters and intelligent play up-front to lead to goals. The side features probably the most versatile starting outfit in the League, with all five outfield starters taking up positions in every area of the pitch. Defenders Hussam Ayubi and Farhan Butt anchor the side and have the trust of keeper Umair Sheikh, while GM Taqi Ahmed is the perfect complement to both the never-ending engine of Nasir Rehman and the ruthless forward play of Hannan Ahmed. The entire side moves up and down the pitch as a unit, limiting opportunities for counters and keeping close tabs on their opposition. Their bench features a number of veterans who have played in the Finals (and in some cases, won them) that know what it takes to have that extra edge in the postseason. Mustafa Tirmizi and Hamza Waheed have done their part for Sham in Finals of past, while Furhan Azmat (Jerusalem '17) and Umair Ashraf (Samarra '18 and '19) have lifted the trophy themselves. That sort of veteran presence off the bench is an advantage any GM would love to have. Further, this side's structure and positional discipline allows them to play the exact kind of game that wins you championships. The only issue is that their road to the championship goes through the offensive juggernaut and top-seeded squad in Samarra. Samarra initially looked like pretenders with the bevy of draws they found themselves collecting, but once the machine started running at optimal performance, they have looked like the favourite to win it all (for an unprecedented third straight year). The side, led by first-year GM Junaid Akram, have the perfect balance, with superstars in every position of the field. Akram joins rookie sensation (and likely League MVP) Aadhil Mohamed and magisterial forward Jibran Sakrani up front, while the side is anchored by defensive stalwart (and likely League Defender of the Year) Salman Ahmad and former Defender of the Year Sheraz Choudhry. Basil Jeelany, someone who has won some individual silverware himself, holds it down between the sticks. And on top of that, they have Atif Mian as the first man off the bench to fill in wherever necessary given his versatility. Add in role players like Atif Khan, Shahbaz Tayyub and Umer Jabbar, and you see why the Redblack were seen as one of the favourites the second the draft wrapped up. This is a side of champions. The squad play an attacking brand of football much in part to the electric play of Mohamed. Factor in his dribbling and pace with the power and finishing of Akram, Sakrani and Mian, and you have a side that can beat you in so many ways. The side have an answer for anything you throw at them and finished the season with only one loss (in a match where they were missing two of their top guys due to injury). It would be an upset to not see these guys at least make it competitive for their opponent's over two legs
The tale of the tape sees Samarra collecting four of the six available points in the team's two matchups. Of note is the 6-2 drubbing the Samarrans put on Hejaz, but we note that the scoreline seems skewed in part of Hejaz losing their star forward Hannan Ahmed to injury midway through the first half, and shortly losing Farhan Butt to a red card only moments after. It will be interesting to see which side asserts their dominance on the matchup. Samarra play a free-flowing attacking style but clamp down when need be, while Hejaz relish in the defensive-approach style of play we typically see in the playoffs. While Samarra looks like the odds on favourite, you cannot count out the Lilywhites just yet.