A good performance from the Cedars, but not good enough

After the 2-0 defeat to Qatar on Matchday 1, The Cedars were under a little bit of pressure to get a result against big favourites Saudi Arabia in order to get themselves in a favourable position to qualify for the second round for the first time in their history. However, unfortunately, despite putting in a decent performance and giving a good account of themselves, the Cedars ultimately fell short as Saudi Arabia ran out 2-0 winners on Saturday at the beautiful, newly-renovated, Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. The all-Arab affair saw a decent crowd attend the game and the atmosphere was great, even if the official attendance of 13000 seems like a stretch with regards to what we saw inside the stadium. But, in the end, Lebanon were unable to get a result against the three-times Asian champions and will now need a win in their last game and other results to go their way if they are to make it to the last 16.

On Saturday morning, there were a lot of rumours emanating from Lebanese football networks saying that Radulovic was going to switch to a 4-3-3 and make numerous changes to personnel, with the idea of playing a more attacking game in order to exploit Saudi Arabia’s defensive deficiencies. However, this was not the case as Radulovic decided to stick with his 5-2-3 formation and make only the two changes: Walid Ismail was replaced by Kassem El Zein at left wing-back, while Mohamad Haidar came in for Bassel Jradi on the right of the front three. The latter change was a big surprise for all Lebanese sports media and fans, with the official reason before the game being that Jradi had suffered an injury, although the circumstances were unclear.

The game plan was very similar to the one used against Qatar, as Lebanon sat deep in their own half and looked to close the spaces and keep Saudi Arabia in front of them. However, Saudi Arabia have players in Salem El Dawsari and Hatan Bahebri who have great ball control and are great dribblers but are also very fast and so it was proving a difficult task for Lebanon from the very beginning. And it only took the Green Falcons 12 minutes to open the scoring, although they did so benefitting from a very lucky ricochet, as Oumari’s panicky attempted clearance deflected off Alex Melki’s leg and looped over the defence into the path of Fahad Al Muwallad, who hit a smashing volley past Mehdi Khalil and into the roof of the net, skimming the crossbar on its way in. Conceding such an early goal was a big blow to Lebanon’s chances of causing an upset, especially as it meant they had to change their gameplan slightly and push forward in search of an equalizer. But to be fair to Lebanon, their reaction to going a goal down was very good and they created a very good chance to equalize only three minutes after conceding. Mohamad Haidar delivered a fantastic corner towards the far post and the unmarked Joan Oumari headed it just over the bar. It is very unfortunate as Oumari was on the stretch and had he left it he had Ali Hamam right behind him in a better position who would probably have finished it in a similar vein to the disallowed goal against Qatar. Lebanon really began to push for the equalizer as Saudi Arabia seemed to slow down after the goal and ten minutes later they had another great chance to equalize. This time it was Hassan Maatouk with the free-kick, taken from a wide position, as he put an equally excellent ball in towards the far post where the unmarked Felix Melki was running. All he needed was to get a decent touch on it and it would have been 1-1, but despite stretching as much as he could he was unable to get sufficient contact on the ball. We actually saw Felix Melki take up quite an advanced role towards the end of the first-half and make a few late runs into the box. Although Saudi Arabia had most of the possession, they were quite lethargic as complacency seemed to be creeping in, and it was Lebanon who were looking the most dangerous as the Cedars gave everything to avoid going in at half-time trailing, but to no avail.

Lebanon tried to keep the momentum going in the second half but Saudi Arabia grabbed control of the game, moving the ball swiftly and making it difficult for the Lebanese to keep their shape, with some of the players starting to tire. But Lebanon still had a few counter-attacks and were playing with determination and ambition. Until the 67th minute, when Hussain Al Moqahwi killed all hopes Lebanon had of getting back into the game, sneaking in at the far post in behind Alex Melki to slot home Hatan Bahebri’s beautiful low cross. With all hopes gone, Lebanon looked deflated and demoralized and Mehdi Khalil made a couple of really good saves, one from Bahebri’s long range shot and one where he did well to parry a dangerous Al Muwallad cross out of danger with Saudi players running into the box looking to score a third, to keep the score down. Khalil actually played well during the whole game, building on from the Qatar match, and has probably been one of Lebanon’s best players during the tournament, despite conceding four goals. Radulovic made a couple of substitutions to try and find a way back into the game or at least get a goal to improve the goal difference, knowing it will be decisive when it comes to which third-placed teams qualify. But he did so without abandoning the defensive shape or going gung-ho, learning his lesson from the Qatar match. Rabih Ataya came on for Haitham Faour in an attacking change which saw Mohamad Haidar drop into the midfield pair, and then Nader Matar came on for captain Hassan Maatouk, who had faded out of the game. But the belief in the team had gone and these substitutions were unable to give the necessary boost to the team. Even the Lebanese crowd, who until then had supported their team admirably throughout the game and arguably been even better than against Qatar, had become subdued. Radulovic therefore decided to shut up shop and make sure to limit the score to 2-0 with eyes on the North Korea match and the race to be one of the four best third-placed teams.

In the first half, Lebanon played well. They set up defensively but because they conceded an early goal, they had to change the gameplan and look for an equalizer and they did that without opening up at the other end. Although they didn’t create too much from open play, they created two great opportunities from set-pieces that could, and probably should have seen them draw level. Saudi Arabia passed the ball really well in the middle of the park with quick short pass combinations including loads of one-twos which made it difficult for our players to keep up but they did well as they generally kept their shape and Saudi Arabia, for all their possession didn’t threaten too much apart from the goal. And when it came to going forward ourselves, Mohamad Haidar was the player taking the initiative, showing great confidence and using his great dribbling skills and shielding the ball really well, making it really hard for the Saudis to get the ball from him. He also kept trying to create chances, using his vision and wonderful left foot, but most of the time the other attacking players were not making the runs he wanted them to and he gave the ball away a few times because of that. He also used his left foot to put in a great corner from which we should have scored. It was therefore very strange that after that we didn’t give all the other set-pieces to him and had Maatouk take them instead. We played with energy and determination but lacked end product and any sort of attacking organization. Radulovic was relying on the individual quality of our attacking players as well as our strength from set-pieces, but while our players were good enough for this strategy when we played against weaker teams in the qualifers, at this level we needed to have sequences prepared for the players to create more chances from open play. We looked more dangerous when the wing-backs threatened to go forward but that happened very rarely. Felix Melki tried to push forward towards the end of the first half to try and give more of an aerial threat in the box but no crosses were put in to test that. The second half was similar for the first 20 minutes until the second goal went in, when Alex Melki and Ali Hamam switched off and didn’t track Al Moqahwi’s run from midfield. To be fair to the players, their defensive organization is almost perfect as is proven by the small number of chances we concede but both games have shown what the effects of not having a professional league are on the National Team. One of the main effects is that our players are not used to such an intense fast-paced game so we can clearly see that when Saudi Arabia moved the ball quickly our players struggled to keep up with their rhythm. But another effect that has been obvious is the fitness of our players, who were not only slower than the Saudis but also got tired towards the 65-70 minute mark and the game fizzled out after that. This is what also happened against Qatar, and just like in the first game, an inevitable lapse of concentration from our players was ruthlessly punished by our opponents. This is the harsh lessons that our team is learning at this high level and in the end, our team for all their efforts and determination, it was simply a lack of quality that cost them against a very strong Saudi Arabian side. But luckily for all of us Lebanese, we still have one last chance to qualify for the last 16: we need to beat North Korea on Thursday and hope other results go our way.

Lebanon team player ratings: Mehdi Khalil 8, Ali Hamam 5, Alex Melki 6, Mootaz Jouanidi 7, Joan Oumari 6, Kassem El Zein 7, Haitham Faour 6, Felix Melki 7, Mohamad Haidar 8, Hassan Maatouk 6, Hilal El Helwe 5; Subs: Rabih Ataya 5, Nader Matar 6, Mohamad Zein Tahan 6.

See slideshow below for pictures of the game

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