A much-needed wake-up call ahead of final stages of Asian Cup preparations

In a friendly match in the Kuwait Sports Club Stadium in Kaifan, Lebanon suffered their first defeat since March 2016 and said goodbye to the 16-game unbeaten road that had become all the talk around this team, and with it the unhealthy state of over-confidence that had filled the national team and its fans.   While it may be disappointing not to be able to go around flaunting our record – the second longest standing record in international football after Spain’s until today –  anymore, this group of players, staff and administration needed a wake-up call as we enter the final stages of the preparations for the Asian Cup.

Until now, it was difficult not to be full of dreams. Two and a half years (16 games) without a defeat, a first major competition in almost 19 years, and a group of players that seemed more united and better organized than it has been in a while were all causes for inflated optimism. But it is important to remain grounded and recognize the gap Lebanese football still needs to close in order to compete at the top table of Asian football. This is without a doubt a team on the rise, and Montenegrin coach Miodrag Radulovic has done a wonderful job building a team around a core of locally-based players capable of competing with bigger and richer nations than ourselves, especially after the retirement of stars Roda Antar, Youssef Mohammad (who remains in the national team setup) and Abbas Ahmad Atwi, as well the loss of Mohammad Ghaddar due to a dispute with the Association. But the Lebanese league is not a professional league, and therefore the players in it have not been exposed to the intensity and the attention to detail that make the difference at the top level and will have much less experience than their professional counterparts in the UAE in January. This is a major factor to take into consideration.

On Thursday, Lebanon faced a Kuwait side full of professionals, and regulars in the Asian Cup. The Cedars had to do so without four key individuals, namely Hassan Maatouk, Nour Mansour and Omar Bugiel due to injury, as well as Joan Oumari. It was therefore always going to be a challenge to keep up the levels of recent performances. The lack of depth in the pool for the national team is reflected by Coach Radulovic’s usage of the same players throughout the qualifiers and friendlies and his reluctance to rotate and experiment with personnel. This is why it was very interesting to see which players would be given an opportunity to stake a claim. Radulovic kept his 5-2-3 formation. Mehdi Khalil started in goal but was replaced by Abbas Hassan at half-time. Ali Hamam captained the side in Maatouk’s absence from right wing-back. In the back three, Mootaz Jounaidi came in for Nour Mansour and Walid Ismail was moved from left wing-back to replace Joan Oumari, with Kassem El Zein keeping his place. Ansar’s Nassar Nassar, usually a right-back was brought in on the left of the back-five. In midfield, it was the usual duo of Haitham Faour and Nader Matar. Soony Saad returned after a long absence from the national team to fill the shoes of Hassan Maatouk alongside Mohammad Haidar in the winger positions. Upfront, Hilal al Helwe started, him being the only striker in the squad with Bugiel injured and Amione still awaiting his papers.

The tactics were the same as usual, with Lebanon sitting relatively deep, allowing Kuwait to have possession, and then closing them down once halfway into their own half. The defensive organization being displayed by this team is very impressive and is a testament to the work being done by the coaching staff. However, Lebanon’s game in possession was very concerning today. While the pitch was certainly not perfect, it cannot be blamed for the incredible wastefulness showed by the team today as players missed pass after pass and control after control, repeatedly giving possession back to the home side. Not only did this mean that we created very few opportunities, but we allowed Kuwait to keep coming and regain the ball in dangerous areas, areas where better players can cause us real problems. The level of concentration was poor from the whole side, something explained by the fact these players play in a league where concentration is not required to be as intense as it is in professional football. And this was visible not only in possession. Indeed, Kuwaiti players could be seen running off the back of Lebanese players and there were many defensive mistakes which could have led to Kuwaiti chances if they had not been so wasteful themselves. This low level of concentration was epitomized by two golden opportunities being squandered by El Helwe and Saad, both miskicking the ball when through on goal. Both those chances came from set-pieces, which was the main positive in a game without many of them. Mohamad Haidar, and then later Rabih Ataya, were able to cause problems for the opposition by delivering fantastic crosses into the box for our physical players to attack. This has obviously been highlighted by Radulovic as one of our main strengths. Today we even saw tactical throw-ins being attempted, with Kassem Zein taking many of them from the right and hurling the ball into a penalty area containing El Helwe, Saad and Hamam, with Haidar spinning out of it simultaneously to pick up the loose ends on the edge of the box. I suspect we can expect more of these long throws at the Asian Cup. We actually had a few chances to put crosses into the box from the right side with a clear focus on that side to mount attacks, but while Haidar delivered quality, Hamam will be disappointed with the crosses he put in. The opposite flank was a clearly a weak point. Defensively, Walid Ismail and Nassar Nassar both played poorly and struggled to do their jobs correctly, with Al Enezi, the Kuwaiti right winger getting never-ending joy in one-v-one situations against them both. Walid Ismail in particular played poorly, and not just defensively. The experienced defender looked very uncomfortable on the ball as he elected to clear it most of the time instead of attempting to keep possession. Ismail’s showing reaffirmed the doubts many fans and experts across the country had about bringing him back into the fold, especially with someone like Hasan Bitar, who remained on the bench on Thursday, who has started the season brilliantly for Ansar after a great year with Tadamoun Sour and a successful summer on loan at Nejmeh. Meanwhile, going forward, Soony Saad, whose selection for the squad itself came as a surprise as he struggles for game time with Indy Eleven in the second tier of the US, greatly lacked in confidence. He missed a great chance early on and never recovered. In the center of defence, Jounaidi did not play particularly well either, with El Zein being the only one from the back three capable of holding his head high as he once again put in a great performance, something he can’t stop doing at the moment and that has put him in a great position to start the first game of the Asian Cup. Faour looked very good in possession but only had that on rare occasions due to the long ball tactics used by Lebanon, and Nader Matar grew more and more quiet as the game went on. Haidar was the one bright spot in an attacking sense, showcasing his dribbling ability and quality deliveries to be Lebanon’s biggest threat. Upfront El Helwe struggled to get into the game and missed the one great chance he had, causing more worries regarding the team’s striker situation.

In the second half, Radulovic made multiple substitutions, starting with Hassan replacing Khalil in goal. Hassan didn’t have much to do until the Kuwait goal, coming from a freekick from the edge of the area which was brilliantly curled over the wall and into the top corner on the opposite sides, leaving Hassan to stand still and watch the ball nestle in the net. Rabih Ataya and Hassan Chaito came on for Saad and El Helwe, with Chaito going upfront, and while Ataya did provide more threat towards the end of the game when Lebanon tried to chase an equalizer, the Cedars were unable to register a single shot on target throughout the game. There were a few changes in defence as well, as Jounaidi came off injured and was replaced by Adnan Haidar, with Faour filling in in the centre of the back three. This was a surprising decision by Radulovic as he left in form, and natural centre-back, Hasan Bitar on the bench, even bringing midfielder Bilal Najdi on for Faour late on instead of Bitar. Najdi, who was only making his second appearance for the National Team, was far from impressive, as he left more of a mark on some of the Kuwaiti players because of his aggressive tackles than on the game itself. Towards the end of the game, Edmonde Chehade, who impressed for Salam Zgharta in their Arab Championship tie against Raja Casablanca, replaced the injured Mohammed Haidar. He injected some much needed intensity into our attacking play, taking players on with his fast dribbling and agility and registering the only effort on goal in the whole game for Lebanon, a long-range effort which went over the bar.

As we approach the end of the penultimate international break before the tournament, there are many things that Radulovic still needs to work on. Since his arrival in the hot seat, he has clearly looked to build a defensive stability and tactical organization in this team to make it hard to beat, and we have seen the fruits of this approach. However, if we can learn anything from Thursday’s game, it is that defensive solidity will not be enough when we player the better sides, and we will need more than just well-worked set-pieces and individual brilliance from Maatouk to have our opponents worried. Radulovic’s priority must now be to work on improving our attacking play by working on patterns and combinations. Indeed, one of the strengths of this system is having the front-three play close to each other and combine with each other, working in the gaps created by attacking wing-backs, something we haven’t really seen so far. And while I understand the desire to stay cautious and leave players behind, we will not be able to create many chances attacking with three players, even four (Matar is likely to be a box-to-box midfielder). Whenever we look at our most dangerous is when Ali Hamam supports the attacks, and leaving five players behind should be enough to maintain a good balance. Radulovic should also look to work on our possession play and ball retention. The long ball approach can work sometimes but we have good midfielders at our disposal, with Faour and Matar particularly two players who are great in possession, and if this team keep going long all the time and bypassing the midfield, they will keep giving the ball away and inviting more pressure onto them. In the last ten minutes against Kuwait, we were given a peek of what Lebanon attacking looks like, and it caused Kuwait problems. Hopefully, we will see more balance when Lebanon play Australia and Uzbekistan in a month’s time, two fixtures that should constitute excellent preparation for the Asian Cup.

Finally, I would like to end this article with a special mention to the brilliant fans who turned up in Kuwait in their numbers, not just to the game but also to the reception held by the Ambassador upon the squad’s arrival. This team has made history and deserves to get this kind of support, and it is a shame it doesn’t get that back in Lebanon. Hopefully though, this is a sign of the support this team will get in the UAE in January. I invite all Lebanese to go the Asian Cup to support our beloved “Muntakhab” and show the continent that we are the best supporters.

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