Partizani emerge top favorites for long-awaited Superliga title

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.

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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 rivaled 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.

Partizani are one of the most successful Albanian clubs. But they 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.

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