Who will make the squad?

In the next few days, National Team head coach Miodrag Radulovic will announce the squad of players set to go to Bahrain for a preparation camp that will begin on the 16th of December and go until the 28th. The camp’s main objective is to prepare the players who play in the local league for the physical demands of an international tournament, with Radulovic saying that the players who play in the Alfa Premier League struggle to keep up with the fast rhythm of international football. Radulovic will also look to work on the technical weaknesses of the team, mainly in the attacking areas. Finally, the camp will end with a friendly match against Bahrain in the Bahrain National Stadium on the 27th, before the team returns to Beirut for around five days before flying to the UAE for the tournament. We don’t know yet if Radulovic will call up a preliminary squad for this camp or if he will already announce the 23 players bound for the tournament and bring along a few standby players, but all eyes will be on the list of players announced as we get closer to the start of the tournament.

There will not be too many changes to the squad that was picked for the trip to Australia, with the players who missed out due to injury expected to return. Radulovic has trusted his core group of players and has not brought in too many new players since the qualification was clinched, but there are still a few doubts over some of the positions, especially with the arrival of three new players to the National Team last month: Bassel Jradi, Alexander and Felix Michel. The selections for the goalkeeper position should be straightforward, with only four goalkeepers having been called to the squads in the last year. Mehdi Khalil, who has been the number one for at least three years and played almost every minute since the beginning of the qualifications for the Asian Cup, will most probably be joined by the experienced Abbas Hassan and the young in-form Mustapha Matar. Whether Radulovic decides to go with a fourth goalkeeper for the camp remains to be seen, although he has shown a tendency to pick four goalkeepers, especially in recent months. The only problem for him is that the usual fourth-choice goalkeeper, Mohamad Taha, hasn’t played since September, when he conceded 6 goals against Ahed in a really poor individual performance. So then will Radulovic bring someone new in on the eve of the tournament or keep faith in his young goalkeeper despite the difficult season? It would be a very strange decision for Radulovic to go with Taha when he hasn’t played in such a long time, but he has been reluctant to bring in new faces, and the eve of the tournament might not be the best time to start. Besides, there aren’t many alternatives out there for Radulovic. The in-form goalkeepers in the local league are Hassan Moghnieh of Ansar, who hasn’t played for the National team since May 2012, and Tripoli’s Nazih Asaad, who has remarkably kept 5 clean sheets despite playing for a team that is really struggling at the lower ends of the league, but he has never made an appearance for the National Team and was last called up back in 2013. Looking to options abroad and the only possibilities are Nemer Lajud, who has spent the season on the bench for Mexican second-tier side Celaya, and Daniel Zeaiter who has also spent much of this season on the sidelines in the German fourth tier, making them both unlikely options.

Moving onto the defence, and there are a few decisions for Radulovic to make. For the right wing-back positions, Nejmeh captain Ali Hamam has been the consistent choice and despite missing the last squad because of injury, he will surely return now that he is fit. Alexander Michel, who replaced him in the draw with Uzbekistan, impressed and should also be called up, bringing valuable professoinal experience, although he could be chosen as a left wing-back. Other players in contention are Nassar Nassar, who can also play on the left, and who has been a consistent feature of the National Team under Radulovic, playing most of the qualifiers. Mohammad Zein Tahan of Safa has also been part of the squad during the last 12 months but has only just returned from injury, and with his club struggling and the competition for places in the squad, he would be a surprise choice, although Radulovic may take him if he chooses to bring more than 23 players to Bahrain. For the left side, Nassar Nassar and Walid Ismail have been the ones to play there since the injury of Maher Sabra, who is yet to return and thus seems set to miss the Asian Cup. Walid Ismail brings experience but his lack of pace and power could be a problem. Hassan Chaito Shibriko of Ansar has been brilliant for his club and done well when given a chance for the National Team. He has all the attributes that make him a great fit for the system but his lack of game time ahead of the tournament suggests that Radulovic will go for Ismail’s experience instead of Chaito’s dynamism, but he may still have time to force his way through as there is a good chance he will be part of the group that travels to Bahrain. In terms of centre-backs, the head coach has shown over the last few friendlies that Joan Oumari and Kassem El Zein are his first-choice centre-backs, with both of them completing both friendlies in the last international break. Oumari has become the leader in the Lebanese defence since being brought back into the side by Radulovic and Kassem El Zein’s spectacular form has seen him emerge to become a key part of this team in the last 12 months. There is a competition for the central spot in the back-three between Ahed’s Nour Mansour and Ansar’s Mootaz Jounaidi, who were partners in central defence throughout the qualifiers before the emergence of the aforementioned duo. Nour Mansour was one of the best players in qualifying and is the key for us playing out from the back and so is probably ahead in the pecking order but Jounaidi will also surely get called up. Then there is Ansar’s Hassan Bittar, who was picked for the game against Kuwait but has very little experience, which is why I would be very surprised to see him get called up as more than just a standby player, even if he has been one of the best defenders in the country in the last year. Jad Noureddine is also a player who might be considered, and he has been unfortunate not to be picked for the last few squads after the season he had with Malaysian club Perak which he just ended with a cup win. However, the fact he hasn’t been called up since March coupled with the fact his season ended over a month ago means he probably won’t be chosen.

The midfield seems more straightforward. For the two positions in front of the defence, I expect to see Adnan Haidar and Nader Matar chosen, as well Haitham Faour who has now returned from injury. There is also Felix Michel, who is usually a defender but was played in central midfield against Uzbekistan, which leads me to think that that is where Radulovic sees him playing for the National Team. Samir Ayass has not played a lot of football this year because of injury but played a big part in both games in the last international break and is still one of the most talented players we have. Ahmad Jalloul of Nejmeh would have been a great option to have, especially as a cover for Faour, but he has not yet returned from a long-term injury and there is thus very little chance of him being included in the camp let alone the tournament. Ansar’s Bilal Najdi has also been a part of the squad recently but he is also a player who has just returned from injury. Besides, he didn’t perform particularly well in his last appearance for the National team. Our strongest positions are probably the two attacking midfield options where we are really spoilt for choice. Captain and talisman Hassan Maatouk will be the key to our success in the tournament but there is a lot of competition behind him. Bassel Jradi, who plays for Hajduk Split, one of the best teams in Croatia, is a fantastic addition to the team and will surely join up with the squad after his game against Dinamo Zagreb on December 16th. Mohamad Haidar has been one of our best players during the friendly matches leading up to the tournament and is key for us from a set-piece aspect as his deliveries are top quality. However he has recently picked up a muscle strain which has ruled him out of the next two games for Ahed and he will be in a race to be fit for the camp, which is a massive blow for the Cedars. Rabih Ataya is another quality player and his dribbling ability was on show against Uzbekistan and Australia as he made a very strong case to return to the starting eleven. Hassan Chaito Moni has also been a regular in the last few squads and is a different kind of player as the others competing for this position but could be the one to provide us with the goals we are lacking, either from one of those two attacking midfield positions or as a false nine. Salam Zgharta’s Edmonde Chehade has emerged recently and is a very talented player who might be brought to Bahrain but I don’t expect him to be in the final 23 unless there is an injury. American-based Soony Saad was once a key player for this team but his club misfortunes have seen him drop down the pecking order and it would be a big surprise for him to be brought to the UAE.

The striker position has been a problem for Lebanon since the exile of Mohammad Ghaddar back in 2016 as its been a real struggle to replace him. This has seen us use various players as false nines including Jradi and Chaito Moni. We have used two recognized strikers recently, the first one being Hilal El Helwe, who has endured a very difficult first season as his club sits bottom of the Greek Superleague with only 2 points, although El Helwe has been one of their brightest performers picking up a goal and an assist. The other is Omar Bugiel, who plays for Bromley in the English fifth tier and who scored the winner against Jordan. He has had a good season but got injured against Australia and is another player who is in a race to get fit. Another option could very well be Abu Bakr Al Mal, who since his return to Lebanese football has performed very well for Nejmeh, getting four goals and two assists. He is definitely a quality player, hence why West Ham United offered him a trial last year, and his club form could, and probably should, earn him a recall after more than a year out of the picture.

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