Lebanon started their Asian Cup 2019 campaign on Wednesday night in the beautiful Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain and unfortunately, despite the optimism going into the campaign, they were beaten 2-0 by the young exciting team of Qatar. The game was tight for about an hour, with Lebanon’s excellent defensive organization proving hard to break down for the Qataris, but in the end, their quality shone through, as Lebanon were left ruing their bad luck. Indeed, Chinese referee Ma Ning was in the spotlight, disallowing a perfectly valid Lebanese goal in the first half, and then wrongly handing the Qataris a free-kick from which they scored in the second.
It was always going to be a big game. This was the first game in a major tournament for the Cedars in 19 years, and the ambitions are to qualify to the second round, so every point is valuable. Montenegrin head coach Miodrag Radulovic had prepared his team as well as he could, putting them through training camps in various countries and setting up friendly matches against fellow Asian opposition, but there is nothing quite like tournament football, and those who have experienced it know it can be cruel. So Radulovic went with experience in his first starting eleven, making a few surprising calls. He went with the 5-2-3 formation that has been our system since the midway point of the qualifiers. Mehdi Khalil started in goal as expected but the back five was surprising, for me at least. Ali Hamam was the right wing-back and Walid Ismail was the left, with Joan Oumari in centre-back alongside Alex Melki and Mootaz Jounaidi who replaced Kassem El Zein and Nour Mansour in the typical starting eleven over the past few months. I was particularly bemused by the decision to play Jounaidi in the middle of the back three instead of Nour Mansour, with the latter being more athletic and much better on the ball than the former. And in my opinion, this decision along with the one to play Alex Melki instead of El Zein, is a clear sign of lack of trust by the manager in the players whose playing experience is limited to the local league, as are Mansour and El Zein. Indeed, it is no coincidence that only one of the starting eleven, Haitham Faour, had never played professionally abroad. He was accompanied in central midfield by Felix Melki. The front three consisted of captain Hassan Maatouk on the left, Bassel Jradi on the right and Hilal El Helwe upfront.
We set up very deep in the beginning, with our game plan focusing on closing the gaps and not allowing the Qataris to play their passing game. So for most of the first half, all eleven Lebanese players sat in their half, shuffling from side to side, closing down whoever had the ball, and watching out for Qatari runs in behind. The defensive aspect of the game plan worked perfectly during the first 45 minutes as Qatar found no way through the well-drilled Lebanese unit, with their star player Akram Afif dropping deeper and deeper to try and make things happen for his team, but to no avail. However, on the ball, the Lebanese were not nearly as good, with a lot of players looking very nervous on the ball. It was not only down to nerves though, with the game plan clearly being to play the ball quickly to the three forwards with direct, long balls. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the recent friendlies, our players found it difficult to pose too big a threat to the Qataris using these long balls, with the attacking players often finding themselves isolated and being forced to dribble past multiple Qataris at once. However, towards the end of the first half, we started to move up the pitch and looked more dangerous. This threat translated into a succession of corners, one of which, being taken by Hassan Maatouk, was converted into the goal by Ali Hamam on the half-volley. This goal would have made it the perfect first-half for Lebanon, and it should have been. After having initially given the goal, the referee, probably advised to do so by one of his assistants, decided to cancel the goal because of an alleged foul committed by Felix Melki on a Qatari player at the near post. To be honest, from where I was sitting, it was hard to tell if the decision was right, but having seen it again it was obviously a really poor call. It was just a classic challenge, the type you get in every single set-piece, in every single match. Felix Melki was attacking the corner, his eyes firmly on the ball, as a Qatari player who was half his size tried to stop him. Had the physicality difference been the other way around, maybe our player would have fallen down because of the arm on his back and he would have got the foul. But this is not how it went; Melki merely used his physicality to hold off the assailing Qatari who then threw himself to the ground in a desperate attempt to disturb Melki’s run. In the end, the ball went way over their heads and fell to Hamam who finished it brilliantly, so the challenge was of little importance anyway. Besides, a clear sign that the decision to cancel the goal was a blunder was the reaction of the Qataris; none of them, not even the guy who was on the ground, were asking for a foul as they all looked at each other and argued over their roles in the goal. After a few seconds when us Lebanese celebrated euphorically, we, as were everyone else included the players on both sides, were left in a state of utter confusion. Our players came back from the massive disappointment to push a little more for a goal but the Qataris managed to hold off until half-time. It is clear that that goal would have changed everything: given the Lebanese something to hold onto, and put the young Qataris under increasing pressure. That incident was always going to affect a group of players that seems to suffer from a certain level of mental fragility, which is somewhat understandable given the facilities and league our players grew up with.
Despite this, we started the second half really strong, taking the game to Qatar in the opening ten minutes. We looked threatening, without creating any real opportunities. But a major positive was that Hassan Maatouk was getting touches of the ball, and he looked dangerous every time he was allowed to take one of their players on, and put some good crosses into the box as well. We were improving as the game went on and our confidence was growing as well and you could see that the players believed that they could win this game. However, somewhat against the run of play, Qatar were awarded a free-kick just on the edge of the box after Maatouk was penalized for a supposed handball while in the wall for a free-kick from further out. This time, even though I was far from the incident, I was confident the referee had got that one wrong, and he even booked Maatouk which was even more surprising. You could clearly see that Maatouk’s arm was protecting his face, something that is permitted by the rules and that happens in every game as well. Maatouk’s arm was not used to make himself a bigger obstacle for the shot; had his arm not been there, the ball would have struck him right in the head. But the referee awarded the free-kick, and Bassam Al Rawi hit a great shot that went over the wall and dipped into the goal, flying past Mehdi Khalil, who had had very little to do until then, with this being Qatar’s first shot on target. Another decisive moment in the game affected by a refereeing howler. Radulovic made a couple of substitutions in an attempt to get Lebanon back into the game, with Nader Matar coming on for Alex Melki, which meant a change from the 5-2-3 to a 4-1-4-1, and then Samir Ayass coming on for Felix Melki to bring more attacking quality and try to gain control of the midfield. But these changes had the opposite effect, as gaps began to appear and Qatar started to look more dangerous, finally enjoying a bit of space. And it wasn’t long before it was 2-0, with substitute and AFC Player of the year AbdelKarim Hassan running down the left, finding Akram Afif in behind Ali Hamam who cut it back for AbdulAziz Hatem whose shot was parried out by Khalil into the path of Almoez Ali to tap it into the empty net. It was a ruthless punishment for a loss of concentration from the Lebanese team, as well as a naïve total abandonment of the defensive tactics to try and find an equalizer. Mohamad Haidar came on late on for Bassel Jradi, but it was too little too late, and Mehdi Khalil made a couple of great saves to keep to the score down as Lebanon seemed to have given up hope of getting something out of the game.
The result is obviously very disappointing, especially as it felt for most of the game that the Qataris were there for the taking. But there are positives as well as negatives that we should take out of this game, and with our next game coming up against Saudi Arabia on Saturday, we need to learn our lessons quickly. The performance overall was not too bad. For 65 minutes we were comfortable and the Qataris didn’t trouble us at all. Radulovic has been working on the defensive organization for months and the hard work paid off, as we only started conceding chances after we began chasing the game. Every single player knew exactly what was asked of them, and did it well. They fought really hard and showed great spirit and determination and did everything together. Another big positive was the threat we caused from set-pieces thanks to our height advantage, although it could and probably should have been even bigger. However, there were a couple of reasons besides the referee’s mistakes that meant we weren’t able to come away with three points or at least one. While we seemed very well-drilled in our defensive structure, there was no such organisation for when we had the ball, with the strategy seeming to rely mainly on direct long balls to try and hit Qatar on the break. This was frustrating to see, given that we had seen during the friendlies leading up to the tournament that these direct balls didn’t suit our players and that we struggled to cause a threat this way. Unfortunately though, we didn’t learn our lesson. In those preparatory games, particularly the ones against Uzbekistan and Australia, we showed that we were a lot more dangerous when we put the ball down and started to play quick short passes. Now it is obvious that a big part of that, especially against Australia, was Nour Mansour, whose quality and confidence on the ball was key in us being able to string multiple passes together, something we were unable to do yesterday. Another thing we needed to do was commit more players when going forward in order to have more of a balanced system. Radulovic’s instructions seem to prevent the wing-backs or the midfielders to support the attacks. This, along with the direct style of play, meant that when our attacking players got the ball, they were isolated. Hence why we did not see once the link-up play between Maatouk and Jradi that had got us so excited before the tournament. We do not have enough quality to attack with only three players. A balanced system is one where you have five players focused on defending and five on attacking. This means that the wing-backs should be allowed, even encouraged to get forward. Even one wing-back joining the attack would allow us to have more options and would enable one of the attacking midfielders to move inside and combine with the others around him. Now an important factor to consider is that Walid Ismail doesn’t have the pace or endurance to run up and down the pitch, which means that we would need someone like Shibriko to play there instead. But Jordan have showed in this tournament that in order to succeed with a defensive game plan relying on counter-attacks and set-pieces, you need to commit men forward when attacking. In fact Jordan counter through quick passes on the ground and not long balls, and they always have at least four players involved in the attack. They also have set-piece routines coming off the training ground, something we don’t seem to have either. This means that Jordan, who we beat only four months ago, are the first team through to the second round while we find ourselves in a tricky situation. And, unfortunately, without wanting to sound too critical of the manager, it is not just his game plan that was flawed, with his substitutions also raising serious eyebrows. It is important to remember that four out of six third-placed teams will also qualify for the knockout stage, which means that goal difference could be decisive. This means that Radulovic was wrong to naively go chasing an equalizer and replace defenders with attackers. A change of system was not necessary. Radulovic should have had more vision and searched for an equalizer without going gung-ho and completely abandoning our defensive structure. There is a big difference between a 1-0 loss and a 2-0 loss and I pray that this loss of composure doesn’t cost us in the end. I was also surprised that Rabih Ataya didn’t come in given he has shown in the past what a great impact he makes when coming off the bench and the quality he has, particularly in front of goal.
A far from ideal start to the tournament for our Cedars, and our goal drought goes on, but I will end this on a positive note. There were 7890 fans in the HBZ Stadium on Wednesday all cheering for Lebanon and the support by the Lebanese fans was incredible. They didn’t stop singing all game (I am still trying to recover my voice for Saturday) and kept going even after the multiple disappointments and they definitely deserve a mention as best fans of the tournament so far. And the praise deserves to go to the committee for Lebanese fans in the UAE which worked really hard to prepare buses to take fans to the games, sheets with lyrics of multiple chants on them, face painting etc… And in a final show of grace and honourable behaviour, they cleaned up the stands to make sure that the world watching was given the best possible image of the Lebanese. As long as the Lebanese fans support this team in this way, we know that we can believe in these players to do anything, including getting a win against Saudi Arabia on Saturday, when there will surely be even more Lebanese supporting the team.