Lebanon head coach Miodrag Radulovic has now announced his final 23-man squad for the Asian Cup, and there weren’t many surprises. However, Nejmeh goalkeeper Abbas Hassan, Ansar defender Nassar Nassar and Bromley striker Omar Bugiel are all out because of injury. They are joined by Tadamon Sour goalkeeper Hadi Mortada and Ahed midfielder Hussein Monzer as the group of players left out, with the exclusion of the latter two being expected given their call-up to the preliminary squad was their first with the senior National Team. So let’s get to know the 23 players who will be in the UAE for the Asian Cup.
Mehdi Khalil (1)
Mehdi Khalil, nicknamed Al Jabal (the mountain), was born in Sierra Leone and grew up there, before moving to Sweden to play in the academy of Swedish top-tier side Djurgardens IF, where he stayed for a year and a half. Then, in January of 2013, he joined Lebanese champions Safa. He quickly established himself in the side as they went on to win the league again, and he made his debut for the National team in March of that year against Bahrain. He won two titles, one FA cup and one Super Cup before joining Lebanese champions Ahed in 2017. In his time at Ahed he has won a further league title as well as an FA cup and a Super cup and has grown into a mature and reliable goalkeeper, and a pillar in the successes of his club and his country. He has been the number one goalkeeper for the National Team since October 2015 and Radulovic has stuck by him throughout the qualifiers and then the friendlies in the build-up to the tournament. And Khalil repaid his faith by putting in great performances and playing a big role in the recent 16-match unbeaten run. He is a very good shot-stopper, often showing his reflexes to make quick saves, and he has a big physical presence, standing at 196 centimetres tall, making him the 5th tallest keeper at the tournament. He uses his size to give defenders confidence, as he likes to come for crosses and punch them away. He is also maturing and cutting out the errors that we were seeing from him before, and has been in particularly good form this season, with 8 clean sheets from 11 game in the league and only 4 goals conceded and 3 clean sheets in the last 5 games for the National Team.
Mostafa Matar (23)
The 23-year old has been one of the most exciting Lebanese prospects in the last few years, coming through at Salam Zgharta and being their number one for the past three years, as well as being a regular for the youth National teams. He only just made his debut for the senior side, but he has often been in the squad during the qualifiers coming in when Hassan was out injured and then more recently taking over from Mohamad Taha as third-choice. This progression in the pecking order has come as a reward for his great club performances and he keeps improving, putting in a great performance against African giants Raja Casablanca in the Arab Club Championship where he helped his team to an unlikely 1-1 draw in Morocco. He is a very good and agile shot-stopper with great reflexes and strong hands and he is also very quick off his line and shows great positioning. At his young age, he has the potential to be the future number one for Lebanon and taking him to the UAE will give him great experience.
Ahmad Taktouk (21)
Ahmad Taktouk is the goalkeeper that has been brought in to replace the injured Abbas Hassan and at 34 years of age, we can see that he will bring great experience to the squad. Although he only has two caps for his country, he has often been called up as a back-up, but recently Radulovic has preferred to call up younger goalkeepers such as Mohamad Taha, with Taktouk’s last call up coming in March 2017 for the first qualifier against Hong Kong. He started out at Akhaa Ahly Aley, before moving to Nejmeh in 2014 where he was the number one for three years. Then, last summer he moved to Bekaa on loan after Abbas Hassan was brought in at Nejmeh, before joining Safa this summer. He started the season as backup to Mohamad Taha but after the opening-day 6-0 defeat to Ahed he was brought in and has been the number one ever since. He is by no means an extraordinary goalkeeper and is playing for a team really struggling this season, but he has clearly been brought in for his experience as a direct replacement for Abbas Hassan, having been part of the National Team setup for four and a half years and Radulovic knows that in Taktouk he has a back-up that he can trust.
Kassem El Zein (2)
The Nejmeh full-back-turned-centre-back has been in incredible form since being moved to his current position last year. He has performed consistently at the highest level and not just in the domestic league. He was one of the most impressive players during Nejmeh’s run in the Arab Club Championship, particularly in the away game against Al Ahly, and he has also taken these performances with him to the National team and has started the last nine games for the Cedars, before the defeat to Bahrain. His tackling and reading of the game have proved very effective for club and country and he has demonstrated on many occasions his ability to sense danger. The fact that he only has 11 caps, of which ten were in the last ten games shows that he has emerged relatively late onto the scene but he is now a key component in the Lebanese defence and the Asian Cup should see him continue his unbelievable rise.
Mootaz Bellah Jounaidi (3)
The 32 year old centre-back joined Ansar when he was just 14 years old and has grown into a key player for the Green Leader and a regular for the National Team since all the way back in 2008. He has loads of experience, amassing over 40 caps over three World Cup qualification campaigns as well as having played for Dibba Fujairah in the UAE, Amanat Baghdad in Iraq and FELDA United in Malaysia. And since his return to Lebanon in January, he has been a mainstay in Ansar’s backline, leading by example. He was also a starter throughout the qualifiers for the Asian Cup, but recently seems to have lost his place in the team to in-form El Zein. He is not the most mobile but what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in intelligence and experience, and he is also technically good enough that he has often played in the central role of the back three since the switch of formation and will probably be competing with Nour Mansour for that role. In addition, he will bring aerial prowess whether in defensive situations or for set-pieces at the other end.
Nour Mansour (4)
Nour Mansour first emerged at Ansar back in 2009, quickly catching the eye of Emile Rustom, the National team boss at the time, who called him up for the first time in 2010. Since then, Nour Mansour has grown into one of the best players in Lebanon, and one who is surely not far from a big move abroad. The 27-year old centre-back moved to Safa in 2011 and played a key role in their three league titles before joining Ahed in the summer of 2017. At Ahed, he built on his previous successes, winning a further league title and a cup and being one of the main causes for their league unbeaten run which stretches back to February 2017. He started all of the games in the last round of qualifiers and although he recently got an injury, he remains an integral part of the side. He is a great tackler and reader of the game, specializing in last-ditch defending. But it is his ability on the ball which stands out, with him being the leader when it comes to playing out from the back, hence his position in the middle of the back three. Finally, he also pitches in with a few goals here and there, mainly thanks to his aerial strength from set-pieces as well as his penalty-taking ability.
Joan Oumari (6)
The Berlin-born central defender only returned to the National team halfway through the qualifiers after a two year absence but he has quickly made himself a leader of the side. After progressing through the lower leagues in Germany, he joined second-tier FSV Frankfurt, which is where he caught the attention of the Lebanese Football Federation. However, after a few appearances, he dropped down the pecking order under previous manager Guiseppe Giannini, until last year when Radulovic chose to bring him back. After two years at Frankfurt, he joined Turkish Superleague side Sivasspor for a year before signing for UAE side Al Nasr. This year he was at Japanese club Sagan Tosu (along with Fernando Torres) on loan and was a key player in their survival from relegation. His club form also translated to the National Team and he is one of the most important players for Lebanon going into the tournament. He is a very intelligent player and a strong tackler but his power stands out and makes him a force to be reckoned with.
Felix Michel/Melki (13)
The Swedish-born George Felix Melki started out at Syrianska FC, a Swedish professional club in the Second Division founded by Syriac-Aramean immigrants, the majority of which came from Lebanon, and that still holds a strong link to that community. After a couple of years in and out of the side, he made his name in the 2016 season, earning himself a move to Turkish second-tier Eskisehirspor, where he spent two years. He returned to Sweden in March 2018 with second-tier side Eskilstuna, playing a part in their promotion to the Allsvenskan. This form caught the eye of the Lebanese football Federation, who decided to get him Lebanese citizenship, which he was eligible for through his father’s heritage, so that he could play with the National team. He is very versatile, having experience playing as a full-back or as a defensive midfielder, the latter being the role Radulovic prefers him in. He is tall and strong and a good tackler, but he is also tidy on the ball and keeps things simple. His size (192 cm) could prove to be a real asset from set-pieces. He is very new to the National Team, having made his first appearance against Uzbekistan back in November, but he has already made an impact and will be in contention to start the opening match.
Mohammad Zein Tahan (17)
The Safa captain has been named in the squad most probably as a replacement for Nassar Nassar but he has a lot of experience with the National Team. His debut for the Cedars came all the way back in 2013 and he has since amassed 30 caps. In that time, he has made himself a Safa hero, having played there his whole career so far and won three league titles, one FA Cup, one Super Cup and one Elite Cup. He is mainly used as a right-back or right wing-back but can also play on the left side. He likes to get up and down the pitch and gives a good contribution to the attack as well as doing his defensive duties. While he is not expected to start at the Asian Cup, he will provide solid cover and enable Radulovic to rotate his wing-back options if need be. He also has a good understanding of the role and the system given he has been a regular in the squads under coach Radulovic. He also poses a serious goal threat and scores regularly for his club side.
Walid Ismail (18)
The 34-year old is one of the most experienced players in the squad, having made his debut back in 2018 and got 62 caps since. He started his career at Racing Beirut where he spent 5 years before moving to Nejmeh in 2013. During his only season with Nejmeh, he won one Premier League title, one Super Cup, one Elite Cup and helped them reach the last 16 of the AFC Cup (Asia’s second-tier competition). His performances earned him a move to Iranian giants Zob Ahan, where during two years he won two Hazfi Cups as well as getting valuable experience from playing in one of the best leagues in Asia and in the AFC Champions League. He returned to Lebanon with Safa, where he spent two years, before joining Salam Zgharta this summer. It hasn’t been the best of seasons for him, and he has struggled at times with the National Team in the last few games because of his lack of pace, but he makes up for that with experience and a calmness that rubs off on others.
Ali Hamam (19)
As current Nejmeh captain and one of the most experienced players in the squad with over 50 caps to his name, a lot of people will be looking to him to lead this side to glory. After all, Hamam has played an integral part in Lebanon’s long journey to Asian Cup qualification, living through the highs and lows that our Muntakhab has suffered in the last decade. Indeed, Ali Hamam made his Cedars debut back in 2009, and has been playing for them ever since. His debut came as a reward for his impressive performances at Beiruti giants Nejmeh, the club he came through as a youngster. He was making headlines from a very young age and helped his side to two Premier League titles and his role in the last one earned him a big move to Iranian giants Zob Ahan, where he spent three years and a half as their number one right-back, winning two Hazfi Cups on the way as well as playing in the Asian Champions League. He only returned to Nejmeh last January, but he was quickly made captain, and his performances have been exemplary. His experience and solid defending accompanied by the threat and quality he brings going forward make him a valuable part of the National Team as well as his club side, with his fitness being the only main concern, given he has picked up a few injuries since returning to the Lebanese Premier League. His age (32) is a valid explanation for this but he is fit for the Asian Cup and ready to help the Cedars to success.
Alexander Michel/Melki (11)
Robert Alexander Melki is the older brother of Felix and also started out at Syrianska, making his debut in the Allsvenskan (1st division) at the tender age of 18 and staying there for 6 years before being released in the summer of 2017. The 26-year old also featured for the Swedish under 19s and under 21s during that time. However, after being released he joined second-tier side Eskilstuna along his brother and played a big part in their recent promotion. His recent form and valuable professional experience grabbed the attention of the Lebanese National Team, for whom he was eligible through his father, who is of Syriac descent. He made his Lebanon debut in November in the draw with Uzbekistan, playing the full 90 minutes and putting in an impressive performance. While he has been playing as a centre-back for his club, he played against Uzbekistan as a right wing-back, before being played both as a centre-back and as a wing-back in the defeat to Bahrain. He is a player who has pace and stamina, making him very suited to the wing-back role, but he is also a solid defender. Against Uzbekistan, he got forward a lot and caused a big threat, although his crossing was disappointing at times. Nonetheless, he is an exciting player to have in the squad and I personally believe he could be the answer to our left wing-back crisis.
Hassan Chaito “Shibriko” (16)
Hassan Samih Chaito is the most recent of the local-based additions to the National Team, having emerged last year through great performances with Ansar. The 27-year old has been at Ansar since 2015, joining them from Safa, but it is only last season that the country, and head coach Miodrag Radulovic included, started to take notice. The left-back was one of the main beneficiaries of his club’s appointment of head coach Frantisek Straka, and it didn’t take him long to be called up the National Team squad. However, he comes into this tournament with very little experience, having never started a game for his country and having only a couple of substitute appearances to his name. In fact, I had strong doubts about him included in the final 23-man squad and there is no doubt that injuries to Nassar Nassar and Maher Sabra helped his cause. Nonetheless, he showed on his debut against Australia that he brings a lot to the table and is very well-suited to the left wing-back role. He is the typical modern-day fullback, enjoying the attacking side of the game as much if not more than the defensive one. He is quick and never stops running up and down the pitch. In addition, he has very good technical ability which allows him to be a real threat going forward, as he showed against the Socceroos when his great cross right at the death almost set up Jounaidi for a consolation goal, only for him to head straight at the goalkeeper. I have actually been calling for him to play more and with Walid Ismail, the other recognized left wing-back, having not been too convincing since his return to the National Team, he might very well be a good option to start against Qatar. His nickname, Shibriko, comes from him playing once with the shirt of his brother, who was playing for a local club in Haret Hreik called Shibriko.
Samir Ayass (5)
Samir Ayass is a central midfielder who was born and raised in Bulgaria. He spent his childhood at the academy of local giants CSKA Sofia, but it is during a loan spell at Akademik Sofia that he made his senior debut, at the age of 20. He soon caught the attention of the Bulgarian under 21 side, but he only made 3 appearances for them. He played for multiple other clubs in the Bulgarian Parva Liga including Beroe Stara Zagora and CSKA Sofia again. But it is while he was at Dunav Ruse, in the 2016/17 season, that he caught the attention of Miodrag Radulovic, who called him up for the first qualifier against Hong Kong, in March 2017. Ayass was eligible to play for Lebanon through his father who is Lebanese. He came on as a substitute against Hong Kong, and he impressed so much during that cameo that he went on to start in all the remaining qualifiers, scoring his first goal in the 5-0 win against North Korea. He also earned himself a move to Lebanese champions Ahed in the summer of 2017, but that move has not gone so well for him. He struggled to get into the starting eleven and has suffered from multiple injuries since then. Despite his lack of gametime in the last year, he still managed to score the goal that won Ahed the league as well as converting the penalty that clinched them the FA Cup, and the 28-year old remains an important player for the National Team, illustrated by him starting in the friendlies against both Uzbekistan and Australia. He is a small, diminutive and technical central midfielder who is good at keeping possession and likes to get forward, occasionally finding himself in the box. However, he is also a fighter and gives his all when his team is out of possession, and we could very well see him start in the central midfield pairing on Wednesday.
Mohamad Haidar (10)
The 29-year old attacking midfielder was born in Tyre and started out at the academy of the biggest club in the southern city, Tadamoun Sour. And after two years playing in their first team, he was signed by Safa, where his great performances lead to two league titles and an FA Cup, winning the golden boot for top scorer in his first campaign. After his second successive title, he was prized away by Saudi club Ittihad. He then got further professional experience playing for another Saudi club, Al Fateh, for whom he featured in the Asian Champions League, and then Iraqi side Amanat Baghdad. But after only one year out in Iraq, he returned to Safa for the 2015-16 season, winning a third league title. In the summer of 2016, he joined Ahed, winning two league titles so far and well on his way to a third with Ahed, and sixth overall. His success in Lebanese football is proof of how talented and special he is, and this tournament is a chance for him to finally take his quality to the international stage. After playing most of his career as a winger, he is now thriving in a more central role, where he can drop deep and use his magic wand of a left foot to play killer passes and open up defences at will. He is also a fantastic dribbler with great close control, and is an excellent set-piece taker, maybe one of the best in the Asian Cup. He made his National Team debut back in 2010, and goes into the tournament as one of the most capped players in the squad with over 50 appearances to his name, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. After starting the first two qualifiers, he was replaced in the starting eleven by Rabih Ataya and had to settle for the role of a substitute during the reaming qualifiers. It is only in September, when Ataya was unfit, that Haidar regained his place in the lineup. However, his performances in the recent friendlies have been excellent and while competition for places is tough in those attacking positions, Haidar is clearly one of the most talented players in Lebanese football and we can be sure he will have a very important role in this tournament.
Adnan Haidar (12)
Haidar was born and raised in Norway and received his football education at Valerenga, one of the biggest clubs in Norway. He made his senior debut in 2008, a year which ended with a Norwegian Cup win. He spent a few years with Valerenga, playing at a high level in the Eliteserien and featuring in a few Europa League games. He was released in the summer of 2011 after he refused to renew his contract as he wanted more game time. He went on a trial at Burnley but he was not offered a contract at the end of it, and it took him six months to find a new club: Stabaek. In his first season with his new club, they were relegated, but he stayed on, gaining immediate promotion back to the first tier. He was released again, and saw himself go through a handful of clubs in the lower leagues if Norwegian football, until the summer of 2017 when he joined Al Ansar in Lebanon. He has become an important player for Ansar in the centre of midfield and has proved to be a good acquisition for the Green Leader. The 29-year old is an experienced international, having made 31 appearances since his debut in 2012. This came after he played for the Norwegian under 16s and under 19s. However, he didn’t feature during the qualifiers, watching most of the campaign from the bench, and his appearances in the preparatory friendlies were limited to cameos off the bench, except for the Australia game, when he played the full ninety minutes. In fact, he really impressed me in that game, particularly in the second half when he was left as the only central midfielder against Australia’s three and yet he put in loads of tackles and interceptions and had a really big presence in the middle of the park, also being very tidy in possession. Indeed, Adnan Haidar, who has no relation to teammate Mohamad, is an all-round type of central midfielder: good on the ball but also strong in the tackle. He is also a big player who adds a much-needed physicality when he comes in.
Haitham Faour (15)
Faour has spent his whole career at Ahed thus far, and has been one of the leaders during their rise to become one of the biggest clubs in Lebanon and a regular winner of titles. He became part of the first-team squad at the age of nineteen. Since then he has won four league titles, and been a constant throughout Ahed’s successes, as well the National Team’s. In fact he has accumulated over 50 caps for his country since his debut in 2011. He is now the captain of Ahed and is looking to lead them not just to a third successive league title but also to continental glory in the AFC Cup. And despite having never played abroad, the 28-year old central midfielder is probably one of the most important players in the National Team. He plays as a defensive midfielder, protecting the backline with his strong tackling and intelligent reading of the game, but he equally contributes on the ball, dictating tempo and allowing the team to keep possession and link the defensive and attacking lines. Off the pitch he is a very calm player who knows what it takes to win, and his experience and wisdom rubs off on his teammates. He is a unique player in Lebanon and is key to us doing well in the competition, and I have no doubt that Faour will step up to the plate and lead by example.
Nader Matar (14)
Nader Matar’s journey to the Asian Cup is quite a remarkable one. He was born in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, to a Lebanese father and a Moroccan mother, and grew up there. He caught the eye of Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon as a youngster and they signed him for their B team. After one year there, he joined lower-league club AD Oeiras, where he also stayed for one year. From there he joined the Atletico Madrid C team as an eighteen year old. Once again, after a year he moved clubs, signing for CD Canillas, a lower-league Spanish club which acts as a C team for Real Madrid. He impressed while there, almost earning himself a promotion to the B team, but instead he moved to Asante Kotoko, one of the biggest teams in Ghana. He settled there for two years and it was while he was there that he was called up to the National Team after catching the eye of the Federation while in Spain. Then in January 2014, he signed for Portuguese second-tier side Beira-Mar. He struggled and after 6 months was released, and it is uncertain what immediately followed. However, in the summer of 2016, he signed for Nejmeh, a move which has seen him become a star in the Lebanese Premier League and a regular for the National Team, as well as becoming some sort of cult hero with the Nejmeh fans. He has approximately 25 caps for his country and was a regular in the starting eleven throughout the qualifiers and the friendlies leading up to the tournament up until the game against Uzbekistan, when Samir Ayass replaced him. Matar hasn’t seen much action with the National Team since. This drop in the pecking order is most probably due to his lack of positional discipline and his occasional lapse in concentration when in defensive situations. Indeed, for most of his career, Matar was either an attacking midfielder or a wide player, but since his move to Nejmeh, he has become a central midfielder. This has become a problem for him with the National Team since the switch to a 5-2-3 with a two-man midfield, meaning Radulovic can not afford to have one of the two be a player like Matar who may leave gaps in the middle of the park. This is a shame as Matar is a very talented player: he is very quick and powerful and definitely one of the best in the squad physically, but he is also has great technique, and he is at his best when running forward from midfield or making runs in behind from deep to stretch the opposition defence. So whether he plays as one of the two holding midfielders or one of the two attacking midfielders, he brings something to our games that no one else in the squad has.
Hassan Chaito “Moni” (8)
Hassan Ali Chaito, who has no relations to Hassan Samih Chaito, is an attacking midfielder currently playing for Ansar. He started out at Ahed, where he played between 2009 and 2013 and won two league titles and two FA Cups. He then passed by Ansar for a year before moving abroad to Al-Shabab in Bahrain. He then got professional experience playing in the Malaysian Super League with Terengganu FC for a year. However, he struggled and so he returned to Ahed where it all began. He found his form again and helped Ahed to three more league titles and one FA Cup, finishing as second top scorer in the league last year with 13 goals before joining Ansar this summer. He has picked up from where he left off, bagging a hattrick in the recent 6-2 win at Salam Zgharta. He also has a lot of experience playing for the National Team and he is one game away from appearance number 50. He has been used regularly as a substitute by Radulovic, and although his preferred position is a central attacking midfield role, he has been playing this season as a left midfielder and Radulovic has used him as a false-nine as well. He could definitely be of use to cover for our lack of striking options, especially since his best attribute is finishing, and he has scored some great goals for club and country throughout his career.
Hassan Maatouk (7)
Maatouk is the captain and talisman of this National Team, with ex-National Team head coach Theo Bucker once describing him as a player that comes around “once in a generation”. And in fact, I would go on to say that he is the most talented player ever to play for the Cedars, despite not having as glittering a career as ex-Bundesliga players Youssef Mohammad and Roda Antar. He emerged onto the scene at Ahed as a 17-year old, starting out as a centre-forward before being moved out to the wings. And even at that young age, it was clear that he was something special and he scored three goals in the AFC Cup that first year, helping Ahed reach the quarter-finals in their debut in the competition. He lead Ahed to three league titles, finishing as league top scorer in 2011, and consequently earning himself a loan move to Ajman in the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League, one of the best leagues in Asia. He impressed heavily in his first season abroad, attracting interest from a host of European clubs including Olympique de Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and OGC Nice. As a matter of fact, Marseille went in for him when his loan spell expired, but he joined Emirates Club instead. He only stayed for two months and joined another Emirati club in Al Shaab. But in 2013, he signed for Fujairah spending four years at the club, even staying after they got relegated in 2016. But after they were unable to get promoted, he decided to leave, and that is when he chose to return to Lebanon and sign for Nejmeh, despite having loads of offers from clubs in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even Europe. His first season at Nejmeh saw him dominate the local league, finishing as top assist maker with 14 assists and second top scorer with 13 goals. However, that wasn’t enough to get Nejmeh the title, and after having tried to push for a move away in the summer, his club form has not been the same. On the other hand, his performances for the National Team have shown no sign of decreasing. The 31-year old comes into this tournament as Lebanon’s second most capped player in history with 73 caps since his debut in 2006, and Lebanon’s joint second top scorer with 19 goals, one behind Roda Antar. He has also been the captain since Antar’s retirement in 2016. He is a fantastic dribbler and also has great passing vision. He usually plays on the left wing and loves to cut inside on his right foot but he also occasionally runs down the wing, making him unpredictable. His crossing ability is also fantastic and so is his finishing. But he is also a leader and often takes responsibility in order to bring his team the results it requires. It is about time that we see him on the international stage, and he will surely give defenders nightmares. This may also be his last chance at a move to Europe.
Bassel Jradi (22)
Jradi is one of the biggest names in the squad, despite having only made a handful of appearances for his country. He was born in Copenhagen, playing as a youngster for the academy of third-tier side B93. After trials at OB and Blackburn Rovers, he signed for AB in the second tier at the age of 19. He scored 8 goals and made 3 assists. His potential caught the attention of Nordsjaelland, one of the biggest clubs in Denmark, who payed 250 000 euros to sign him up. However after a year of limited first-team appearances, he moved to Norwegian first-tier Stromsgodset. He got more game time in the first couple of years without impressing particularly, but contributed to a second-placed finish in the league. When he came back from a loan spell at Lillestrom, he became a regular starter and one of the starts of the league, let alone the team. This summer, he signed for Hajduk Split, one of the best teams in Croatia. His international career meanwhile started very young, as he came through the Denmark youth teams from under 16 to under 21. Then in 2015, he made two friendly appearances for Lebanon, scoring against Iraq. But he still had not made up his mind on which country he would represent. It was in last January that he announced he would play for Denmark, hence why he did not play a part in our qualifiers. But he overturned his decision in November, just in time to be called up for the games against Uzbekistan and Australia, where he really impressed. He is an attacking midfielder of great talent and great versatility, being able to play in any of the attacking positions, including upfront, where he has seen most of his game time for the Cedars as a false-nine. He is very tall (187 cm) yet very agile, which makes him a great dribbler. The 25-year old is also a great finisher and links up very well with the other attacking players in the squad, particularly Hassan Maatouk, forming a dangerous duo. In terms of club career, he is definitely the highest profile we have in the squad and his decision to come play for us is a big positive for us ahead of the tournament, where he is expected to shine regardless of where in the front three he plays.
Rabih Ataya (20)
Ataya is one of the most talented players in the squad, with his dribbling ability immediately standing out whenever you watch him play. He started out at Tadamon Sour and, after spending two years there, he earned a move to Ansar as a 19-year old. He spent eight years at the club, being one of the best players in the Lebanese Premier League but was not able to win a league title. He won two FA Cups though and in the summer of 2016, he signed on a two-year loan deal for Zob Ahan, one of Iran’s biggest clubs, joining fellow Lebanese Ali Hamam. But while Hamam was a regular starter, Ataya was in and out of the team. He nonetheless amassed great experience in the Persian Gulf Pro League and in the AFC Champions League, and got 7 assists in the league in his second season. But he returned in the summer to Ansar and after a summer-long battle for his services between the big three, Ansar, Nejmeh and Ahed, he signed for defending champions Ahed in a massive deal that saw three players, including his teammate with the National Team Hassan Chaito Moni, go the other way. He hasn’t really got going yet for his new club, with him having a couple of fitness issues for the first few months, but he has shown glimpses of his wonderful ability, something we will surely see at the Asian Cup. He made his National Team debut in 2012 and has made 24 more appearances since then. He started the qualifiers on the bench but in the second game, he came on when we were 1-0 down in Malaysia and scored two great goals in the last ten minutes to clinch us all three points. This put him into the starting eleven for the remaining qualifiers, with him also scoring against North Korea. He has since lost his starting spot to Mohamad Haidar because of his fitness issues, but his substitute appearances against Uzbekistan and Australia have put him right back in the fight for a starting spot. And it is not only his amazing dribbling ability which makes him an important player, but also his great finishing ability and fantastic deliveries from crosses or set-pieces. The 29-year old goes into this tournament as one of our most valuable attacking weapons, and he is also looking to earn a move abroad after his underwhelming spell in Iran.
Hilal El Helwe (9)
El Helwe is a special player in the squad given he is the only recognized striker to have been brought to the Asian Cup. He was born in Hannover, Germany, and came through the academy of Bundesliga club Hannover 96. He then went to play for the youth teams and then first team of TSV Havelse between 2008 and 2015. In 2015, he signed for Vfl Wolfsburg II where he contributed to their promotion to the third-tier, with 7 goals and 7 assists. But he didn’t stay to play for them in the third-tier, and signed for fellow third-tier Hallescher, where he scored only 4 goals in 54 appearances over two years. However, although his goal-scoring record was not great, his performances were good enough to earn him a summer move to Greek Superleague side Appolon Smyrnis. The season started very poorly for his team, and although it has picked up slightly, they find themselves bottom of the league so far with only 6 points. The 24-year old has picked up a couple of goals and an assist but his form has improved recently, and he will be hoping to take that momentum with him to the UAE. Meanwhile, he made his debut for Lebanon back in 2015, playing 17 games and scoring 3 goals, two of which came in qualifying against North Korea and Malaysia, the latter being a very well-taken last-minute winner in the final game. He started the last three qualifiers after being in and out of the squad but dropped out of the starting eleven due to a combination of bad club form and the return of Bassel Jradi. However, he decided to stay in Beirut the whole of last week to train with the squad when most of the foreign-based players went home to spend New Years with their families, which shows how determined he is to start against Qatar. He is a tall player and holds the ball up relatively well, but it is his pace and running in behind that we will surely see a lot of at the tournament and he is also a good finisher and a poacher in the box. He will be under pressure though, given we haven’t scored in our last five games and he is our only striker, but he is confident that he can be the one to bang in the goals for us at this tournament.