On Saturday, Lebanon will play their second game in this year’s Asian Cup in Dubai’s newly renovated Al Maktoum Stadium, facing group favourites Saudi Arabia. The Cedars enter this match as clear underdogs and with increased pressure following the defeat to Qatar, but there is belief in the camp that an upset can be caused.
It was only three days ago that Lebanon suffered a painful and undeserved defeat against Qatar and the disappointment will still be fresh in the memory, especially given the circumstances surrounding the defeat. This should motivate the Lebanese players who, after performing well for 65 minutes on Wednesday before falling apart, will want to prove that they can last the 90 minutes against one of the favourites to win the competition. Saudi Arabia are indeed a very strong team and come into this game off the back of a 4-0 win against North Korea where they looked impressive. Saudi Arabia were ruthless and solid, albeit against a poor and outnumbered North Korea side. A lot of people will remember Saudi Arabia from their performances at the World Cup. After and embarrassing 5-0 defeat to hosts Russia which saw them fall apart in the last ten minutes of the game, they recovered remarkably well, almost holding Uruguay to a draw but ultimately losing 1-0 because of a goalkeeping blunder, and then beating Egypt 2-1. A lot has changed since then, however. Juan Antonio Pizzi has now had more time in order to instill his possession-based philosophy and build a squad of players in his image. What he has also done is lower the average age of the squad considerably, trading in the more experienced players for Saudi Arabia’s exciting young generation. This means that since the world cup, Pizzi has overseen the removal of goalkeeprs Yasser Al Mosailem and Abdullah Al Maiouf, as well as captain Osama Hawsawi, Mansour Al Harbi, Taisir Al Jassam, AbdulMalek Al Khaibri and Mohammad Al Sahlawi. This was an important step in Pizzi’s implementation of his philosophy, given that he favours an intense high-energy and high-pressing game that requires players with the necessary physical attributes. This has also meant that he has had to restructure the defence, especially his centre-back partnership, which he struggled with in Russia. This evolution has not gone smoothly, obviously, with Saudi Arabia’s results since the World Cup being far from impressive. These include draws against Bolivia, Iraq, Jordan and South Korea, a 2-0 defeat to Brazil, and only a 1-0 win against Yemen, with the latter being their only win between the two tournaments. So while Saudi Arabia came into the tournament with huge pedigree and some of the most talented players on the continent, you could be forgiven for having doubts regarding their title credentials. Another big problem for Pizzi has been the number nine position in his customary 4-3-3 formation. With Al Sahlawi’s exclusion from the Green Falcons since the World Cup, his options for the striker position are extremely limited. Muhannad Asiri, who was the other striker at the tournament, is a slow aging target man not suited at all to Pizzi’s style of play. Pizzi has therefore tended to either go with a false nine such as Hatan Bahebri or Fahad Al Muwallad, or go with the young Haroune Camara, who really impressed at the Asian Games. But in his final squad, Pizzi only called up one striker and that was Mohammad Al Saiari and not Camara. Another player who didn’t travel to the UAE was key midfielder Salman Al Faraj, whose technical ability impressed a lot of people, me included, at the World Cup in Russia. Al Faraj’s absence is a big blow for Saudi Arabia and it remains to be seen how big that blow will prove to be. But in the end, all those doubts were put aside along with North Korea as the Green Falcons dispatched their opponents, scoring four goals with four different goalscorers. Pizzi started the game in a 4-3-3 formation: Mohammad Al Owais (GK); Mohammad Al Buraik, Ali Al Bulaihi, Mohammad Al Fatil, Yasser Al Shahrani; Abdullah Otaif, Housain Al Mogahwi, AbdulAziz Al Bishi; Hatan Bahebri, Fahad Al Muwallad, Salem Al Dawsari. We can therefore see that Pizzi went with a centre-back partnership of Bulaihi and Fatil, chose Al Bishi to replace the injured Faraj and went with Al Muwallad as a false nine. The latter proved to be a good call, as he scored the fourth goal. Bahebri opened the scoring with a screamer, Fatil scored from a poorly defended set-piece and Al Dawsari scored the other goal. Saudi Arabia played really well and could have scored more, although it is clear that North Korea were all over the place defensively and Lebanon will surely prove a tougher nut to crack. But Al Dawsari and Bahebri are two top-quality wingers who are great dribblers, very quick and have great long shots on them. The fullbacks also bomb forward at every opportunity in this system, giving them strength in numbers.
Nonetheless, while Saudi Arabia are a top side and have better quality players than Qatar, there are a few areas that Lebanon should be looking to in order to get a result. First of all, while Saudi Arabia looked very strong in their opening match, we need to remind ourselves that it was against a poor, ten-men North Korea side and that we shouldn’t get carried away and forget where they stand with regards to their process. They are still far from the finished article and have a lot of areas which need securing. This includes the defence, which has been shaky since the departure of Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk back in September 2017. And with the loss of their leader Osama Hawsawi, there is a big rebuilding job to be done there and a clean sheet against North Korea will not be enough to restore total confidence. Pizzi will probably stick with Al Bulaihi and Al Fatil at centre-back, but they are both relatively inexperienced when it comes to international football, having made 26 combined appearances for the National team, and not many of those were as a pair. And to add to the defensive worries, Yasser Al Shahrani, first choice left-back, has been ruled out of the game because of injury, which means Pizzi will probably have to start Hamdan Al Shamrani, a 22-year old who only has 2 senior caps. This defensive vulnerability is something that Lebanon will need to take advantage of, especially given that Pizzi’s team commit both full-backs to the attack, therefore leaving loads of space down the sides for the likes of Hassan Maatouk to exploit. Furthermore, as opposed to Qatar’s team, who have been playing together through the age groups and for the same coach essentially for about 6 or 7 years meaning that they have a solid base and philosophy in place, Saudi Arabia are still in the process of acquiring a new philosophy and Pizzi is still trying to figure out his best team, which means that Saudi Arabia’s base is less solid than Qatar’s. Saudi Arabia’s lack of striking options and preference to play with a false nine could also work in our favour as we will probably sit deep and be compact, which means that Al Muwallad, or whoever plays instead of him, may grow frustrated from a lack of touches and Saudi Arabia may suffer from not having a real presence in the box to cross towards. Another aspect that we may have an advantage in over the Saudis is physicality, and more specifically size and strength. Lebanon have a taller team than their Saudi counterparts, with players such as Joan Oumari, Nour Mansour, Felix Melki, and even Bassel Jradi or Hilal al Helwe having very few if any in the Saudi squad to rival them for physicality. We saw what the physicality of Russia did to Saudi Arabia in the World Cup, and we can use our height and power to our advantage, whether when defending crosses, attempting to gain control of the middle of the park, or attacking crosses and particularly set-pieces. Finally, the incredible support from our fans in the UAE will surely give the players a boost, and while the Saudis may very well bring fans of their own, it will take something special and unexpected for them to rival the Lebanese, who should be even more on Saturday given this game is in Dubai and on a weekend.
From the Lebanese point of view, the squad is confident that they can cause an upset and get a positive result against the Saudis as they are determined to qualify for the Second Round of the Asian Cup for the first time in their history. The squad had two separate training sessions on Thursday: a recovery session in the morning for the players who played on Wednesday and a light session focusing on fitness and on attacking in the evening for the others. On Friday the team held one last session in Al Maktoum Stadium immediately after the pre-match conference which saw Haitham Faour replace Hassan Maatouk as the man alongside head coach Radulovic. During the press conference, Radulovic said that a lack of experience at this level as well as nerves may be the reason for the drop in level of performance after Qatar took the lead but that he believes his team can achieve a good result today by keeping their discipline for the full 90 minutes. He also confirmed that he will need to refresh his squad as his players are not used to playing at this intensity which means he will make 2 or 3 changes and confirmed that he will play with three attacking players: Bassel Jradi, Hassan Maatouk and someone else. Unfortunately, when it comes to team news, there are some reports that say that Rabih Ataya got a stomach injury in training, meaning he is a doubt for the game. Otherwise, reports coming out this morning seem to be pointing not just to 2 or 3 changes to the lineup, but 5 or 6 as well as a formation change. Indeed, El Maestro Sports have reported that Lebanon will lineup in a 4-3-3 formation with Mehdi Khalil in goal, Joan Oumari and Nour Mansour at centre-back, Mohammad Zein Tahan and Kassem El Zein at right and left back respectively, Haitham Faour and Nader Matar or Adnan Haidar and Mohammad Haidar in midfield and the same front three as the one that started against Qatar. In my personal opinion, I am not sure that a change of formation is required or that it will be a good thing at all, given we have been playing in the 5-2-3 for more than a year and it takes time to prepare a new system. This system may suggest a slightly more adventurous approach by Radulovic today or may simply be just about trying to win the midfield battle, which is very important to the way this Saudi Arabia team play. But seeing the Melki brothers drop out of the side would surprise me given how well they performed on Wednesday, particularly Felix, who got around the midfield area and won the ball back numerous times. Meanwhile, Ataya’s injury is a blow as I think he would have gone into a front three with Maatouk and Jradi, giving us the possibility to rotate the front three during the game and have them combine with each other, with Ataya’s dribbling ability and finishing quality a big asset for the Cedars. But the removal of Ali Hamam, Walid Ismail and Mootaz Jounaidi doesn’t surprise me, with the former too looking nervous during the game and tired at the end of it.
But depending on the formation, we will play in a very different way. A 5-2-3 would probably see us play in a similar way to Wednesday, with us sitting deep and relying on direct counter-attacks with the wide attacking players. While a 4-3-3 may see us play more short passes, especially with the reintroduction of ball-playing centre-back Nour Mansour and the selection of Mohamad Haidar as a playmaker. But whatever the tactics are come Saturday evening, if Lebanon play with the same quality of defensive organization as the Qatar game and with a little bit more attacking intent, we might cause an upset.