It has surely been a very difficult international break for the Lebanese squad, following the defeat to North Korea with a 1-0 loss in Oman, making it three defeats in a row and 4 out of 6 for new head coach Liviu Ciobotariu. These results and the performances that led to them have diluted the optimism and positivity that followed the West Asian Championships and have put a lot of pressure on the next match in Beirut against Turkmenistan.
It may be necessary to have a little perspective on these two results, especially considering the amount of travelling done by the Cedars over the course of the last ten days and the conditions that they lived under in North Korea, all of which surely amounted to taking all the energy out of the players. And Lebanon did display signs of fatigue in the two games, but there were also some important lessons and wake-up calls for the coaching staff.
Lebanon faced Oman, who were equal to Lebanon in the FIFA rankings before this international break and who turned around a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 against India in the late stages of their first World Cup qualifier, in front of a decent crowd at the Al Seeb Stadium. Liviu Ciobotariu made numerous changes to his starting XI, seemingly looking to experiment and give opportunities to the fringe players, leaving out sure starters such as Alex Melki, Felix Melki and Hilal Al Helwe. Instead, Kassem Zein lined up alongside Nour Mansour in central defence, with Hussein Zein and Shibriko either side. In goal, there was a debut for Shabab Sahel’s exciting young goalkeeper Ali Daher, who is only 22 years old. Adnan Haidar was chosen as the holding midfielder with Samir Ayass and Nader Matar either side of him. Mohamad Haidar kept his place but it was his Ahed teammate Mohamad Kdouh who started on the left, with the England-based Omar Bugiel being given the nod upfront.
In the first half, Oman looked the better side, causing problems to the vulnerable Lebanese backline every time they got forward, although neither team was able to keep possession of the ball for any decent amount of time. Lebanon’s defensive issues continued and had Oman not been so hesitant once they arrived in attacking areas, they could have easily scored a goal or two before the break, looking particularly threatening on the counter-attack. Ali Daher had started the game well however and looked confident and determined to impress, which he ended up doing making several good decent saves. Hussein Zein, whose international career had started with such promise, looked to be out of it, and we didn’t see the aggressive Kassem Zein we are used to. Nour Mansour was solid but the defence still looked like they panicked every time an Omani player got near the penalty area, and there was not much protection from the midfield, with Adnan Haidar doing most of the work in that department. The Ansar midfielder was doing a decent job of it but he was being outnumbered and his midfield partners did not provide him with much help. Samir Ayass was poor once again and generally looked off the pace, whether in defensive situations or in possession where, just as in the North Korea game, he kept giving the ball away. Nader Matar was not involved too much in the defensive side of the game but he looked good in possession and was busy trying to make things happen in an attacking sense along with Mohamad Haidar, who was dropping deep a lot and trying to play dangerous passes in behind. Omar Bugiel showed endeavour and had some interesting ideas but was lacking partners in attack on the same wavelength. Indeed, Mohamad Kdouh did not look comfortable on the wing and as much as he came inside to try and join up with Bugiel, there was no chemistry between the two and they struggled to link up. Lebanon did push forward towards the end of the first half in search of a goal without creating anything of note.
Ciobotariu made two halftime changes, further proving his intentions with regards to this game. Moataz Jounaidi replaced Shibriko, with Kassem Zein moving out to the left. Felix Melki came on in the place of Samir Ayass, whose future with the National Team will be put into question after his last two performances. Felix Melki did help tighten things up in the middle slightly but it was barely ten minutes after the changes when Oman took the lead. The goal came from a simple long kick by the goalkeeper, which Mohsen Al Ghassani was able to control unmarked before hitting it on the half-volley into the bottom corner from about 20 yards out. It was poor defending once again, with question marks especially on the marking of Kassem Zein and Moataz Jounaidi, who could see Al Ghassani and yet decided to offer him the time and space to score what turned out to be the only goal of the game. In response to going a goal down, Ciobotariu brought on Hilal Al Helwe and Hassan Chaito Moni for Mohamad Haidar and Omar Bugiel in the hope that Lebanon can avoid a third successive loss. But all these changes led to Lebanon losing their shape a little. Despite that, shortly after the changes Oman were down to ten men following a professional foul that stopped Helwe from going through on goal. This saw Lebanon push forward more and it was not long before they had the ball in the back of the net through Hilal al Helwe who headed in a Nader Matar free-kick but was wrongly adjudged to be offside. Lebanon did not create anymore chances after that and Oman held on for the win pretty comfortably.
There is no hiding the fact that this international break as a whole was a very disappointing one, and the pressure is slowly beginning to build on Romanian head coach Liviu Ciobotariu after he had pleased fans initially with his intentions to play attacking football. The main worries that will emanate from these two defeats are that he seems like he still does not know the players well and is still searching for his best team and best formation, hence the consistent chopping and changing. We also did not see the same attacking intent that excited the fans during the West Asian Championships in the summer and goals remain a problem for the team. But it is also defensively that major cracks have appeared and with a big game against Turkmenistan coming up, Ciobotariu and his coaching staff are going to need to find solutions quickly if they want to continue their quest to reach the third round of World Cup qualifying. The hope is that the last two performances were a direct consequence of the difficulty of the trip to North Korea and that Lebanon will be back to their best at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium on the 10th of October.
Ali Daher (7), Hussein Zein (5), Nour Mansour (6), Kassem Zein (5), Shibriko (6), Adnan Haidar (6), Nader Matar (6), Samir Ayass (4), Mohamad Haidar (6), Mohamad Kdouh (5), Omar Bugiel (6)
Subs: Felix Melki (5), Moataz Jounaidi (5), Hilal Al Helwe (6), Hassan Chaito Moni (5)