It is now 16 matches for Lebanon without a defeat, with this game being the eighth draw of this run, and the ninth clean sheet. Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic only has two more training camps to prepare his team before they set off for the Asian Cup in the UAE next January, and we are getting a better idea of what that team will look like with every passing day.
Indeed, Radulovic decided to stick with the 5-2-3 and refrain from making too many changes from the side that beat Jordan three days ago, with Mootaz Jounaidi replacing Nour Mansour in the back three, Rabih Ataya coming in for Mohamad Haidar and match winner Omar Bugiel being given his first start for Lebanon in place of Hilal el Helwe. The team was not only similar in personnel but also in tactics, with the strategy once again being to sit deep, frustrate and then hit the opposition on the counter. At least this is what it was in the first half. This led to a first half largely dominated by Oman, although that domination was mostly possession in the middle third. Oman were unable to create much of importance, except for one good chance down the right with the resultant shot being very well saved by Mehdi Khalil. Oman got in a couple more times down the sides but to no avail in a largely uneventful first 45 minutes. I had mentioned the large gaps between midfield and defence in the Jordan match but those were not as noteworthy today, as there was no press of any kind, allowing Nader Matar and Haitham Faour to sit and protect the back five. It was definitely a deeper setup today than on Thursday, maybe due to the absence of Nour Mansour, whose pace has been a great asset to the Cedars in the past. The wing-backs were once again very deep and restricted to a defensive role and even the front three spent the majority of their time defending. In fact Lebanon showed very little attacking intent in the first 30 minutes. There were a couple of set-pieces that were comfortably dealt with by the Omani defence, as well as a speculative long-range effort by Joan Oumari, perhaps trying to recreate that famous goal he scored against Laos a few years ago. The strategy was obviously to hit the wingers early with long diagonal balls, although that became all too predictable and only ended with us putting Maatouk and Ataya in aerial duals with the opposition full-backs, hardly where you want your two most creative and technically-gifted players. Radulovic was not content and could be heard screaming “faster” to the players from the touchline. The last 10 minutes of the first half saw a slight shift as Lebanon grew into the game and started to push up, and Nader Matar had a half chance after running forward from midfield, but all this without troubling Ali Al Habsi in the Oman goal. The first half also saw an injury as Walid Ismail was substituted by Nassar Nassar at left wing-back.
The second half was still played at the same slow intensity but this time with Lebanon as the culprit, with the Cedars dominating the possession in the second half. There was certainly a shift in mentality as Lebanon chased the winning goal as the game went on, but the chances were few and far between. It was Oman’s turn to stay deep and compact without breaking too much of a sweat. Radulovic, evidently dissatisfied, rang the changes in the second period. Nader Matar was replaced early on by Adnan Haidar who seems to be a more disciplined option for the midfield, albeit less of a threat going forward. Mohamad Haidar replaced his new Ahed teammate Ataya and tried to create something, going on a couple of nice runs and attempting a few threaded balls in behind. At the other end, there was another save for Mehdi Khalil, this time from a long-range effort, as the Ahed goalkeeper impressed again, further consolidating his place as number one for the National team. Bugiel, who struggled to get into the game and was largely isolated, was taken off with just about a quarter of the game to go, with Hassan Maatouk, who hadn’t impressed either, going upfront and Hassan Chaito being put on the right wing. There was to be a debut for Ansar’s Bilal Najdi, who entered the field with a quarter of an hour left, as Faour was moved to centre-back. The latter had a decent game as he dictated the tempo for Lebanon and tried to help mount attacks. As the game approached its end, it was Lebanon who were pushing for a winner as Oman were camped in the last third. Nonetheless, Lebanon were unable to break down this tight unit, and the game finished 0-0.
I feel like two clean sheets and one goal scored sums up this international break nicely from Lebanon’s perspective, and it was obvious that Radulovic has worked mainly on defensive shape in training during the past week. This was important with more difficult opposition coming up in the next round of games and the backline now seems settled and solid. Mehdi Khalil has had two very good games, coming to punch crosses when possible and making good saves when required, as he grows into a very confident goalkeeper. The centre-backs all looked solid and were comfortable on the ball and it seems to me like its Kassem El Zein who is currently leading the race to partner Mansour and Oumari, although that may change with the start of the Lebanese Premier League next weekend as well as the potential arrival of players from abroad such as the Swedish-born Michel brothers. Ali Hamam has surely nailed down his spot at right-wing back but there is still ambiguity on the left side in what is clearly Lebanon’s problem position at the moment. The midfield looks strong but I still have doubts about Nader Matar in a midfield two, while there is healthy competition in the winger positions. Striker is also a position that will have Radulovic concerned with neither El Helwe nor Bugiel showing quite enough in the last two matches, although hopefully the arrival next month of Jeronimo Amione, a striker who plays in Mexico, will help solve that particular dilemma. Indeed, Lebanon still have a lot of work to do offensively and I do believe that the current system, where both wing-backs have very limited contributions to the attacking phase of play, makes it difficult for Lebanon to cause danger as they are only attacking with 4 players (the front three and one of the midfielders). In fact, the times where today Lebanon looked the most threatening were the moments when Ali Hamam supported the attack from right wing-back, and I honestly believe that attacking with 5 players while leaving 5 behind would give this team the right balance. But until the start of next month, when Radulovic will meet up his players again to work on all of these things, his eyes, as well the ones of the rest of the country, will be firmly fixed on the start of the Premier League season.