A successful trip down under for the Cedars

The Lebanese squad has now returned from Australia, with the players going back to their respective clubs in Lebanon, Sweden, England, Croatia and Japan and resuming their club duties with a month to go until the biggest and most exciting event in Lebanese football’s history. Lebanon played two friendlies against Uzbekistan and Australia in which they drew 0-0 and lost 3-0 respectively and spent a week training in great facilities and connecting with the massive and very supportive Australian Lebanese community. This was a very successful trip as the players and coaching staff learned numerous lessons in the preparation for the Asian Cup.

Firstly, individual performances and Radulovic’s selections were in the spotlight as we get a closer idea of the team that will play in the UAE. From the goalkeeper standpoint, Mehdi Khalil still holds the monopoly over the gametime, with Nejmeh’s Abbas Hassan and Salam Zgharta’s Mustapha Matar watching both games from the bench. Khalil had very little to do in the first match but the game against Australia was his toughest game yet for the National Team, and he made a good account of himself. He made 4 saves including a very good one from Andrew Nabbout and can’t be blamed for the goals that went in, except maybe the third goal, which he got a good hand to but couldn’t keep it out. I personally feel the power on the shot was too much for him to be expected to save it. Otherwise he showed great command of his box and had a 100% success rate for his catches. Alexander Michel played the first game at right wing-back and was very impressive, with his pace and energy making him a great asset offensively as well as defensively. He seemed to form a very good partnership with Mohammad Haidar on the right side, as they combined on numerous occasions, and he provided a threat going forward, even if his crossing was not always on point. Nassar Nassar, who played the first game on the left and the second on the right, was impressive and definitely much better than last month. I had criticized him after the defeat to Kuwait and said he wasn’t up to the level, but he was much better, particularly against Australia, where he was one of the first Lebanese players to compose himself on the ball. In fact, I would go on to say he was the player I was most proud of, given that until two years ago he had only played for teams in the lower part of the Lebanese Premier League, and has very little experience against professional teams, let alone of the quality of Australia. He is still vulnerable defensively (was at fault for the third goal) and is unlikely to start in the UAE but he did his chances no harm. In the second match, we saw Walid Ismail play at left wing-back. I was also very critical of him and his selection but after a very rocky start against Australia, he grew into the game and put in a solid performance and showed his valuable experience. This has surely increased his chances of going to the Asian Cup, even if his lack of pace and offensive contribution remain a problem when he plays. Hassan Chaito Shibriko, who I have been wanting to see be given a chance, had a little cameo against Australia and looked very good, particularly going forward, where he provided a threat and combined well with Matar. In central defence, Kassem El Zein and Joan Oumari completed both games, and repayed Radulovic’s trust by putting in very solid performances, particularly against the Socceroos, where they saved multiple goals with great last-ditch defending. Joan Oumari in particular has become a leader in the Lebanese defence since being brought back into the side by Radulovic. The competition was in the central position of the back three, with Jounaidi playing the first and the end of the second game and Nour Mansour playing 70 minutes against Australia. Jounaidi didn’t have much to do against Uzbekistan but against Australia, it was his mistake that allowed Nabbout to trouble Khalil. He reacted well to that mistake however and will be disappointed not to have at least troubled the goalkeeper from a header in the last minute. Nour Mansour defended very well against Australia despite being at fault for the second goal. But it is on the ball that he really shines, with his intelligence and technique key in Lebanon playing out from the back in the second half. In midfield, we saw Samir Ayass starting both games, replacing Matar who has been a regular in the team throughout this journey. He was solid if unspectacular, with his composure on the ball a big positive but his lack of defensive awareness the main negative. Felix Michel partnered him in the first game and played a solid game, providing bite in the middle of the park and winning the ball back numerous times and therefore protecting the defence well. Adnan Haidar played the whole of the second game and, after struggling in the first half, he imposed himself in the second period, winning the ball back frequently and looking tidy on the ball as well. Nader Matar was surprisingly given only 15 minutes of game time, against Australia. This is probably due to his lack of discipline which leads to big gaps in the midfield area, hence why he played further forward against Australia than usual. He actually looks better in that attacking midfield role, where he can play with more freedom and use his pace to make runs in behind the defence. Unfortunately for him, this is our strongest position and he will have loads of competition. The main competition, and the talisman in this team, is obviously Hassan Maatouk. He has been far from his best this season, but he was a lot closer to it during these two games as he was our best performer in attack. Against Uzbekistan, he provided constant threat and also contributed to the high press by winning the ball back high up the pitch several times. And against Australia, his dribbling and running in behind caused a lot of trouble for the Aussie backline, and he came close to scoring in the 85th minute with a shot that went just wide from a tight angle. He also showed why he is captain, helping out heavily at the back in the first half when we were struggling. But it was not just him who caused Uzbekistan and Australia problems with their dribbling and close control. Mohammad Haidar continued his fine form and also showed his worth from set-pieces. Rabih Ataya was untouchable and made a fantastic impact when he came on against Australia, and he would have scored against Uzbekistan if it weren’t for a great save by Suyunov. And Bassel Jradi who played mostly in the false nine position has increased our quality in attack and showed what a great addition he is to the squad. He also did a good job of holding the ball up and winning fouls when we were under pressure in a good center forward performance that was just lacking a goal, despite his visible frustration at being isolated at times during the early period of the games. Hassan Chaito Moni had cameo appearances at the end of both games but wasn’t able to get too involved. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of Omar Bugiel and we hope he will be back fit and firing soon. The main positive from a selection point of view is that, unlike in recent times, Radulovic was willing to experiment as he gave almost everyone in the squad a chance to show what they are capable of, with many players playing in more than one position, and he also tweaked systems at times to adapt to the game situation and test the versatility of our players.

Another aspect that was under scrutiny was the attacking side of the game, with many (including me) feeling that we have been overconservative in recent months and have focused mainly on defending. The first half of both games saw similar critiques being made about the strategy as we struggled to create too much of a threat. There were also a lot of direct long balls, which proved rather ineffective, especially against Australia. But the second halfs were much better and, despite a lack of goals, I was pleased with what I saw. First, I had been calling for a diversification of our attacking methods, and we saw just that, with our team focusing a lot more on short passes and quick combinations in the final third to create our openings, as well as our great dribbling ability, which is obviously a strength of ours (we won 12 fouls against Australia while they won just 7 despite having 65% of possession), with Maatouk, Jradi, Ataya and Haidar all talented dribblers. We can see that for those two positions in behind the striker, we are spoilt for choice and competition is very high. I had also hoped to see more attacking support from the wing-backs, and we saw that, particularly from the right side with Alex Michel and Nassar Nassar who both looked to support the attack as much as possible. Hassan Chaito Shibriko also provided a threat from the left side in his short appearance against Australia. This did leave us a little more vulnerable on counter-attacks, and we saw that a few times with Australia who benefitted from Nassar Nassar going forward to go down his vacated side, but this is a necessary risk and should be balanced by a defensive midfielder such as Haitham Faour who can cover the space. Our only problem was with our quality in the final third. We had a good passing accuracy of 76% but that went down to just 60% in the final third and our crossing accuracy was a mere 12.5%. We were also only able to make 4 key passes in the whole game compared to Australia’s 12. Our finishing was also lacking, with 0 shots on target from 7. We are definitely in need of a striker who can turn more of our possession into shots, with there being loads of moments against Australia where we were guilty of overplaying, and with Jeronimo Amione not being allowed to play by FIFA, our striker pool is looking very small.

Finally, these two games allowed our players to be pitted against two of the best teams in Asia and some of the best players on the continent and gave us a good idea of where we stand. Against Uzbekistan, not only were we able to match them but we were better than them throughout the game, restricting them to very few opportunities and creating many ourselves as their keeper put in a great performance. This shows the talent that we have in Lebanese football, and what we can be if the game in our country had more money and was better run (not to knock the Lebanese FA and the people in it who always give their best for the beautiful game in Lebanon). The game against Australia provided a lot more lessons about how our players react against big teams. I think that in the first half we were not confident enough in our own ability and were very nervous, which is why we sat very deep and struggled to get out. The second half showed that when we relaxed and started to play to our strengths and enjoy our football, we were able to compete with Australia. And we will surely learn from this for the tournament. However, the main difference between our players and the Australians related to fitness, where we lacked pace and energy and were also outmuscled and lost out in the aerial battles. This comes as no surprise, with most of our players playing in our semi-pro league compared to the Australian players who are professional athletes and play in the most intense leagues in the world. This won’t be as much of a problem in the Asian Cup as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not as physically strong as Australia because their leagues are less intense and less physically demanding. Overall, we can take a lot of positives from seeing how our team competed against these two giants of Asian football, and hopefully we can learn from this experience and take confidence in ourselves ahead of the tournament.





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