Lebanon kick started their Third Round of World Cup Qualifying campaign with an important goalless draw against the UAE in Dubai on Thursday. Having gone into this game as big underdogs and considering they were subjected to significant pressure by the hosts at times during this game, the Cedars walk away the happier of the two sides as they get their first point on the board. This was not only the first game of the Third Round of WCQ but it was also the first game for Lebanon under the tutelage of Czech head coach Ivan Hasek, and lots of eyes were on the Cedars to see how they fared at the highest level of continental football and under new management. After all, Lebanon scraped through the Second Round thanks in no small part to the results of other teams as well as the surprising withdrawal of North Korea and they definitely have a point to prove regarding whether they even deserve to be playing at such an advanced stage. At the end of an intense 90 minutes and hard-earned draw, we learned several key things about this “new” Lebanon side.
Hasek has Cedars well-organised
During the last three games of the Second Round in June, the most concerning thing about Lebanon’s poor performances was the lack of organisation and the absence of a clear identity within the team. The players did not seem to know what their roles were and this proved costly. This was clearly not the case in Ivan Hasek’s first match. The players seemed much clearer about what their roles in the team were and this was evident as much in possession as it was out of possession. Lebanon started the game by pressing the UAE high up the pitch, a strategy that proved effective as the Cedars won the ball several times high up the pitch. The team then gradually dropped deeper and deeper as the game went on but the defensive shape remained the same, with a narrow back four, two aggressive and proactive holding midfielders in Nader Matar and Felix Melki and two wingers that dropped back to form a 4-4-2 without the ball. Towards the latter stages of the second half this turned into a 4-5-1 with the attacking midfielder (Jradi then Haidar) dropping deeper to assist the defensive effort in central midfield. On the other hand, in possession roles were a bit more fluid with Hasek choosing not to go with an out-and-out striker and instead selecting Hassan Maatouk for a false nine role. Maatouk and Haidar would alternate dropping deep to pick up the ball from the midfield and combine with the likes of Jradi in the half-spaces and the pockets in between the midfield and defensive lines of the UAE, with Saad or Maatouk looking to stretch the defence with runs in behind. In the second half, when Lebanon dropped deeper, Omar Bugiel and Ataya were brought on to provide a threat on the counter-attack with Omar Bugiel’s hold up play being used quite effectively on a couple of occassions, one of which almost saw Moni through on goal. The effectiveness of this game plan can be debated given the good chances the UAE missed which on another day could have seen them win the game and the lack of clear cut chances at the other end. But this is more due to individual mistakes and poor decision-making and the team definitely looked more controlled then under Jamal Taha.
Jradi-Maatouk is the key in attack
Ever since the days of Miodrag Radulovic, Lebanon has struggled to score goals and provide a consistent attacking threat. This problem persisted under Liviu Ciobotariu and then under Jamal Taha and it seems Hasek will not be able to fix it overnight. For all the dangerous positions that we found ourselves in on Thursday night, a clear lack of quality and lack of ruthlessness meant that few of these opportunities turned into meaningful attempts on goal. However, the potential is there for all to see and particularly in the partnership between Hassan Maatouk and Bassel Jradi, one that has promised so much since Jradi’s second debut against Uzbekistan in 2018 and yet only shown glimpses. Indeed, Lebanon created the first chance on Thursday which came from Jradi dribbling through a few players in the half-space on the right before playing a through ball for Maatouk whose shot was easily saved by the keeper (a cross for Saad at the back post instead could have led to a goal). There were other instances where the two players combined rather effectively and their intelligence and creativity can definitely cause teams problems if finetuned. They are both technically-gifted players who like to play in tight spaces and on the half-turn and combine well to break through the lines. Mohamad Haidar and Rabih Ataya are also very good in that regard and only bolster our options in these positions. The only thing missing is some more penetration and ruthlessness to turn this nice combination play into goals. Soony Saad made a few good runs in behind and his finishing is very good but he tends to drift in and out of games and needs to do these things on a more consistent basis. Omar Bugiel showed some good signs in his cameo and Moni seems to know how to get himself in dangerous positions and is probably the best finisher in the squad. A wildcard could be the young Charlton Athletic striker Hady Ghandour who would provide an outlet with his youthful energy and fearlessness and his running in behind and I think he could also be a good option off the bench.
The spine of the team is main problem
One thing that was evident on Thursday is that no matter how well organised the team was, there is an obvious shakiness and nervousness at the back, and this is not only a problem in the back four. Indeed, the centre back partnership of Alex Melki and Joan Oumari was far from convincing. They did defend crosses very well but UAE repeatedly found joy running in behind them, with Oumari’s lack of pace a clear point of weakness, not to mention his numerous errors in judgment in marking players which could have cost us dearly. The two centre-backs were also very poor on the ball; the amount of times Oumari gave the ball away cheaply was astounding. They were also not helped by the midfield duo of Felix Melki and Nader Matar who struggled to cover the pitch and were basically absent as a midfield duo. Felix is clearly not in the best form of his career and has had to go back down to the Swedish second tier in search of regular football but his best performances in a Lebanon shirt came alongside the experienced Haitham Faour who would sit in front of the defence and cover Melki as he pressed opposing midfielders. Faour was also the player who dictated the tempo in possession and Melki now being the holding midfielder has a clear negative impact on our play in possession. To add to that, Matar’s lack of positional discipline and his own sloppiness in possession make his unsuitable to playing in a midfield two. Unfortunately, while Lebanon have players such as Nour Mansour and Maher Sabra to bolster the backline, there is a lack of options for the midfield. The loss of key figures in Haitham Faour and Adnan Haidar in recent years is evident and we have failed to replace them as of yet. Muhammad Ali Dhaini showed promising signs in the game against Djibouti and his absence is unfortunate. The only players in the current squad who could play that role are Walid Shour, Hassan Srour and both lack the experience to be trusted at that level, while Abbas Assi is busy covering for the injuries at right-back (and doing a good job at that). It is definitely fair to raise questions regarding the surprise omission of Hussein Monzer, a big talent in this position, or the consistent overlooking of players such as Hassan Kourani and Jihad Ayoub who both have been tearing it up in the domestic league from holding midfield. Yehya Al Hindi could also be a good option for this role if he can just get his career back on track. But for all these potential options, it will be very difficult and yet essential for Hasek to find a sustainable solution in order to solidify the spine of the team.
Mostafa Matar is more than capable
For years the media and the Lebanese fanbase have been calling for more game time to be given to the backup goalkeepers to prepare them in case of an injury to longstanding number one Mahdi Khalil, whose top performances for the Cedars have seen him become practically undroppable, even in friendly matches. Mostafa Matar has been part of the National Team setup for four years but this was only his 5th cap. After intially becoming the backup keeper to Mahdi Khalil following Abbas Hassan’s international retirement, he was overtaken in recent months by Ali Daher in the pecking order and his career seemed to stall after a couple of poor performances with the National Team and a dip in his club form. However, with both Mahdi Khalil and Ali Daher succumbing to significant injuries ahead of this game, Matar has been granted a massive opportunity to be the keeper for Lebanon for the first part of the 2022 World Cup Qualifying Third Round as well as the Arab Cup in December. Until Thursday, Matar’s few games with the National Team has seen him look shaky and nervous and there was understandable concern about him starting the game in Dubai. But Matar proved all the doubters wrong with an excellent performance. He did look nervous at the beginning but he grew with confidence with every save and successful intervention he made, and this culminated in a match-saving intervention right at the death when everyone thought Ali Mabkhout was in on goal. Obviously this was only one game and the next challenge away to South Korea is so much bigger but Matar was rewarded with the man-of-the-match award, and deservedly so, and the hope among Lebanese fans is that this boost to his confidence will help him return to his best and finally reach the potential we all saw in him when he first burst onto the scene.
We must target set-pieces
Back in June, Lebanon showed an outrageous inability to defend set-pieces and this caused uproar among fans and was probably one of the main reasons that led to the replacement of Jamal Taha as head coach. This is even less acceptable considering that Lebanon have some of the biggest and strongest players in Asian football. A team that can count the likes of Joan Oumari, Felix Melki, Kassem Zein, Nour Mansour, Omar Bugiel, Hilal Al Helwe, Maher Sabra, Alex Melki among others should be a continental force from set-pieces whether it be from a defensive or an attacking point of view. And while we definitely saw improvement against the UAE when it came to defending set-pieces, there was still great deception whenever we had the opportunity to put the ball in the box from a corner or a freekick. With all these players at our disposal, we should be targeting set-pieces as an essential route to score goals and this would in turn help to resolve our aforementioned goalscoring issues, which would greatly bolster our chances in this group.
Player Ratings: M.Matar(8); A.Assi(7), A.Melki(6), J.Oumari(5), K.Zein(8); F.Melki(6), N.Matar(5); M.Haidar(7), B.Jradi(6), S.Saad(6); H.Maatouk(6); Subs: R.Ataya(6), O.Bugiel(7), W.Shour(n/a), Moni(n/a)