The final stage in the Asian Cup preparations is the most important one

On Sunday, the Lebanese national team travelled to Australia for what is the final international break before the Asian Cup. The squad are staying in Gold Coast ahead of two friendlies against Uzbekistan in Brisbane on Thursday and against Australia in Sydney next Tuesday. These games are very important as they will see the Lebanese national team pitted against two of Asia’s finest, and will give us a good idea of where we are ahead of the tournament in January. In fact, the game against Australia, who are the defending champions going into the Asian Cup, will be a massive occasion as it will also be Socceroos legend Tim Cahill’s final game in the famous green and gold and will take place in the wonderful ANZ Stadium in Sydney. In addition there is a very large Lebanese community in Australia who will surely turn up in their numbers to support the Cedars. These two games will provide the players with a great challenge and many lessons ahead of the Asian Cup.

One of the first things to look out for was the squad that Radulovic would pick for these two matches, particularly as this is the last squad before the tournament, and there were a couple of great surprises. First of all, after having called up four goalkeepers to the last squad, Radulovic left Mohamad Taha out this time around, which was no surprise given he hasn’t played for Safa since the opening day 6-0 defeat to Ahed. Therefore, the three goalkeepers who are in Australia, and who will most probably be in the UAE in a month’s time, are Mehdi Khalil, who has been the number one since the start of the qualifiers, the experienced Abbas Hassan who is in terrific form for Nejmeh and young Salam Zgharta goalkeeper Mustafa Matar. Injuries to Nejmeh captain Ali Hamam, Safa captain Mohammad Zein Tahan and Maher Sabra have left Radulovic with very little options in the wing-back positions, thus his decision to go with just three recognized wing-backs. Those are Nassar Nassar, Ansar’s right back, Hassan Chaito Shibriko, Ansar’s left-back and the experienced left defender Walid Ismail who currently plays for Salam Zgharta. I must admit I was quite surprised (or rather disappointed) with Radulovic’s choices for the wing-back roles. Walid Ismail has been poor since his return to the National Team in March and was all over the place against Kuwait and Nassar Nassar has also struggled against the better sides. Meanwhile, I am still scratching my head to find a logical explanation for the continued overlooking of Ahed’s Hussein El Zein, who has been arguably the best full-back in the league for the past 18 months and would be perfectly suited to the wing-back role due to his athleticism. Moving to the position of central defence and this is one of the positions to look at during these upcoming two friendlies. Nour Mansour has returned after missing the last game due to injury and he is joined by Kassem El Zein and Mootaz Jounaidi from the local league. Joan Oumari, who has been in top form for Sagan Tosu in Japan (the same club that Fernando Torres plays for), also returned after missing the last squad. But the headline is the first call up for Swedish-born brothers Alexander and Felix Michel, who just got promoted last weekend to the top tier in Sweden with Eskilstuna. They add much-needed depth and professional experience to the squad and can play in multiple positions across the defensive line. It will be very interesting to see them in action in the next two games. Meanwhile, Ahed captain Haitham Faour having to pull out of the squad because of injury leaves us short of options in central midfield, with Ansar’s Adnan Haidar and Nejmeh’s Nader Matar being joined by Samir Ayass of Ahed, who returns to the squad after missing the last few squads because of injury. Samir Ayass is yet to fulfill his potential since joining Ahed last summer from Bulgarian side Dunav Ruse, mainly due to injuries, despite being one of the biggest talents in Lebanese football. But this could be a big opportunity for him to stake his claim ahead of the Asian Cup, and I believe he could offer a more disciplined alternative to Nader Matar in the centre of midfield alongside Faour in the starting eleven. There are many options for Radulovic in attacking midfield. Captain and talisman Hassan Maatouk is joined by Ahed duo Rabih Ataya and Mohammad Haidar as well as Hassan Chaito Moni of Ansar, who could also play upfront, from the local league. And the biggest and best surprise in the squad is the recall of 25 year-old Bassil Jradi. Jradi played two friendlies for the National team three years ago, scoring a brilliant goal against Iraq, but then he decided to play for the Denmark national team instead of Lebanon. However, two weeks ago, he announced that he had come back on that decision and spoke of his desire to represent Lebanon in the Asian Cup, and there was no way that Radulovic was gonna pass up on the opportunity to add such a quality player to the team. Indeed, Jradi was one of the best players in the Norwegian league before moving this summer to Hajduk Split, one of the best teams in Croatia. There is no doubt that Jradi is a fantastic addition to the national team and he will definitely take some of the pressure off Hassan Maatouk when it comes to creating attacks. Finally, there were less options upfront, with Radulovic only calling up one recognized striker, Omar Bugiel, after Hilal el Helwe pulled out and Mexican-born Jeronimo Amione was not given the green light by FIFA in time. However, most of the attacking midfielders are capable of doing a job upfront for the team as a false number nine. Nejmeh’s Hassan El Mohamed was also called up but he pulled out because his mother fell sick. We wish her all the best.

There are still many questions that need answering ahead of the Asian Cup. First of all, we will need to provide more of an attacking threat and key to that is diversifying our attacking methods. I spoke of this issue after the last game and it is obvious that we cannot go far in the tournament if we don’t score goals. In my opinion, the main reason for the lack of goals from our team in the last few games is an overreliance on Hassan Maatouk to create the chances, as well as a predictability when it comes to our ways of attacking. We have all seen that Radulovic’s strategy is to sit deep, restrict the space and then hit the opposition on the counter attack through long diagonal through balls to the attacking midfielders. There has also been a lot of work done on set-pieces. However, I fear that this may not be enough to pose a threat to the better teams, and we have some very technical players who are more than capable of combining with short passes, which is something I hope to see more of. Bassel Jradi will also surely help in this department, possibly even from a false nine position, which could be a solution Radulovic opts for to compensate for the lack of options in the striker position. It has also been noticeable that in most attacks, we have four players who are contributing, those being the three forwards and Nader Matar from central midfield. This leaves us slightly unbalanced and overly conservative and I don’t think it will be enough against the better teams. Allowing one wing-back to support the attack would help with this, and players such as Ali Hamam and Hassan Chaito Shibriko have shown their abilities going forward from those positions for their clubs. While attacking will be the main issue to solve, there are other important things to look at during this camp. The main benefit of playing against two quality sides in Australia and Uzbekistan will be that Radulovic will be able to test his strategy against the best in the continent, as well as seeing how the individual players deal with a higher level of quality and intensity and a higher demand from the players not just physically, but mentally. It goes without saying that when you play against top teams you need to stay focused during the entire game and need to be able to last the 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the latter has been an issue for the National team, with Radulovic calling for the need for a specialized fitness coach to be added to his staff after a significant fitness issue being shown by the players in the last game against Kuwait. This problem comes from the local league and the lack of professionalism in it. The players who play in the Lebanese Premier League are not as fit as players playing abroad, and this could prove a major issue when we go to the UAE. The final question to be answered is the one regarding personnel. It will be fascinating to see which players are playing where, particularly with the new boys, and how Radulovic goes about solving the two problem positions: left wing-back and striker.

As we approach the tournament, the starting eleven is starting to become clearer, but there are still a few positions up for grabs, and the competition for places has increased now that there are three new additions to the team. For instance, where will Felix and Alexander Michel fit into the team? Being mainly central defenders, they are likely to be competing with Nour Mansour and Kassem El Zein for a starting spot in the back three, with Joan Oumari probably already guaranteed to start on the 9th of January as long as he is fit. But Felix Michel also has experience playing as a left-back, and I would like to see if he could be the long-awaited solution to our problem at left wing-back. Meanwhile, with Walid Ismail struggling, I hope to see Hassan Chaito being given a chance to stake a claim for the left side of the back five, especially on the back of his great club form, and there is also a gap at right-back, with Nassar Nassar and perhaps Kassem El Zein as leading candidates to fill in for Ali Hamam. In midfield, the absence of Faour is a problem as he protects the defense very well and also provides composure on the ball. Adnan Haidar will probably replace him, and Ayass may get the chance to show he is a more tactically disciplined alternative to Nader Matar, who I have criticized for being out of position and allowing players to run off the back of him. And where does Bassel Jradi play? There is no way that a player of his ability will be left on the bench, but with an abundance of quality in the attacking midfield area (Haidar and Ataya), he could potentially be played as a false nine, which would then see him able to roam around freely and exchange positions with Maatouk and the other attacking midielder. There is also the option of playing Jradi alongside Maatouk in those two attacking positions behind Omar Bugiel, who has been in tremendous form for his club (Bromley in the English fifth tier). He is more of a target man and could be the presence down the middle which allows Maatouk and Jradi to make runs and play off of him. What I do hope to see is experimentation by Radulovic, particularly against Uzbekistan, as he has shown a reluctance to rotate and a lack of trust in the backup options in the past. When we get to the Asian Cup, we will need more than just 14 or 15 players who are ready, and the only way for players to be ready is for them to play. Overall, this is a very important couple of weeks for Radulovic to fine tune his team ahead of the Asian Cup and learn more about his players. It is also an exciting one for Lebanese fans, who will be able to see their heroes take on the best in Asia, and hopefully pull of an upset or two.

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