On Thursday night, Lebanon face North Korea in their final group game at this Asian Cup at the Sharjah Football Stadium. This game is crucial for our team as it is our door to the last 16 of the 2019 Asian Cup, a stage we are yet to reach in our history. And while two defeats in our opening two matches against Qatar and Saudi Arabia have put us in a tricky situation to make this happen, there is still hope.
Indeed, at this edition of the Asian Cup, in addition to the first two of each group, we have four third-placed teams from 6 that will be given a slot in the next round. When Lebanon kick off against the North Koreans tomorrow, we will know all the other third-placed teams, with Oman competing with Turkmenistan for that spot tomorrow at 5:30 local time. Knowing the third-place teams means we will know what we need to qualify. Since Monday, Lebanese fans and journalists alike have been calculating and recalculating what each results mean for Lebanon and what we need to qualify. As things stand, Bahrain are the third in Group A with 4 points, meaning they are guaranteed to proceed. The other three slots are still up for grabs. Palestine came third in Group B but have only 2 points, making it unlikely that they will still be in the competition come the Second Round. In Group C, it is Kyrgyzstan with 3 points and in Group D it is Vietnam also with 3 points (see table below). This means that we need to beat North Korea to have a chance of going through, with the more goals we score the better. If Oman win tomorrow, which is likely to happen, we will need to win by four goals, whereas any other result means that a win should probably suffice. So how much hope do we really have?
A lot. This is not the North Korea that narrowly lost 2-1 to Brazil at the 2010 World Cup. Only the goalkeeper, Ri Myong-guk, remains from that team, with the situation of the team being very different now. In fact, North Korea have arguably been the worst team in the tournament, losing 4-0 to Saudi Arabia and then 6-0 to Qatar. This gives them a goal difference of -10, which is joint-worst with Yemen, although Yemen have played one game more, and they are yet to score. They also have the worst disciplinary record in the competition, picking a red card in both games so far. In fact, the player to have gotten sent off in the last game was captain Jong Il Gwan. He will be suspended for Thursday’s game along with Ri Il-jin, who picked up his second yellow of the tournament against Qatar. North Korea qualified as second behind Lebanon in their qualifying group and ahead of Hong Kong and Malaysia. Between their qualification and the beginning of this tournament, they organized only three friendlies, losing 2-0 to Uzbekistan in October before drawing 1-1 with Vietnam and losing 4-0 to Bahrain in the last month. These results were already giving everyone an idea that they were towards the bottom of the pecking order in this competition, as was the fact that their preparations were clearly far from sufficient. North Korea don’t have much experience either, with a couple of players playing in the Italian lower leagues, a couple in the lower leagues in Japan, one in Austria, and the rest in their local league. Yet, somehow, most non-Lebanese experts and pundits tipped North Korea to finish third ahead of the Cedars. This prediction was made even despite the result in the last game between these two sides, a 5-0 victory for Lebanon in Beirut. This past result is being used to justify the Lebanese’s hopes that their team can beat North Korea comfortably, scoring enough goals while not letting in any. Now it is true that Lebanon needed a last-minute goal to snatch a 2-2 draw against the same opposition in Pyongyang, although Lebanon played a large part of that game down a man down because of the red card picked up by Kassem El Zein. I think it is also fair to say Pyongyang must be a very difficult place to play and so a draw is a good result considering the environment in which the game was played. But these games were back in 2017 and it is more useful to look to the most recent games. Against Saudi Arabia, North Korea lined up in a very defensive 5-4-1 formation. But they couldn’t keep Saudi Arabia out, showing big defensive weaknesses as Pizzi’s side carved them open at will. To make things worse, right-winger Hang Kwang-song of Perugia in Italy’s Serie B (one of the few North Koreans to be playing abroad), was sent off. He will probably return to the starting lineup after missing the game against Qatar, maybe replacing the captain Jong Il-gwan. Against Qatar, North Korea switched formation, lining up in a classic 4-4-2 formation, with their star man, Pak Kwang-ryon of Austrian first-tier side St. Polten upfront. Although he is not by any means a regular goalscorer, he will be the man Lebanon have to watch out for as he boasts a long career playing in Switzerland and now Austria. But once again, North Korea were no match for their opponents as Qatar eased to a 6-0 win, with striker Almoez Ali banging in 4 himself. I watched this game and it was clear from the beginning how easy the game was going to be for Qatar. It was like men against boys. Qatar didn’t have to break a sweat to create a chance against this poorly organized North Korean side. Indeed, their players, especially their defenders, were all over the place and to make matters worse, they made numerous individual mistakes. On the ball they looked pretty tidy without being able to create any meaningful opportunity. Another thing that was clear to see was North Korea’s physical struggles, with the Qatar players being able to run past them with ease and win all types of physical battles. We can use this to our advantage, given that one of our strengths is our physicality, with tall players such as Felix Melki, Joan Oumari and Nour Mansour as well as Hilal El Helwe and Mootaz Jounaidi. One strength I did notice from them (there weren’t too many) was attacking set-pieces and they have a player who puts in fantastic deliveries from corners, but hopefully we control the game enough that they won’t get too many of those.
We can therefore go into this game full of confidence in our players and their ability to achieve what is needed. However, there are a couple of issues that need to be resolved. It is very clear that not only do we need a win against North Korea but preferably a big win. The problem is that Lebanon have gone on a run of 7 games without scoring a goal. This means that we will need to open up and take risks at the back in order to play more offensively. Since we secured qualification to the Asian Cup, Radulovic has trained the team almost exclusively on the defensive side of the game. This explains why our defensive organization in the opening two matches was so good and why Qatar and Saudi Arabia struggled to create any real chances. However, there is a serious goalscoring problem with this team, and it is not only due to the lack of strikers available. Every time Lebanon look to go forward, they seem to be doing so individually and without any offensive organization, making it very hard for Lebanon to create chances. In order to fix this, Radulovic has worked on this in training, but it remains to be seen if that work is enough to end the goal drought. They have also worked a lot on finishing recently as Radulovic is becoming more desperate to try and find a solution to this big issue. It is highly likely that he will also be changing the system against North Korea, perhaps switching to a 4-3-3. The rumours of the switch had already begun before the Saudi Arabia game, and given he played against Saudi Arabia in the typical 5-2-3, I am starting to think that he may have been working on his plan for this game from before the Saudi game. I am personally not too sure about the formation switch. While we need multiple goals, we need to refrain from naively going gung-ho from the first minute and giving up control for the match. We need goals but we need to be patience, otherwise North Korea could very well surprise us. This is why I would rather Radulovic go with a system the players are familiar with, but adapt it to a more attacking game plan which would allow the wing-backs to push high up the field, along perhaps with one of the midfielders. He could also play players that are more suited to an offensive approach, such as Hassan Chaito Shibriko as a left wing-back, as he would offer a serious threat from the left, and drop Mohamad Haidar into central midfield to allow for one more attacking player. Keeping this system would allow us to attack using the width of the wing-backs and having the attacking midfielders play closer together along with Mohamad Haidar who would be given the freedom to roam around the pitch, get on the ball and make things happen with his wonderful left foot. This system would also allow us to have a strong defensive base to stop North Korea from counter-attacking, all while allowing us to sit deep and go on counter-attacks of our own. As a matter of fact, we played with this system when we beat North Korea 5-0 and most of our goals came on the counter-attack, as it is when they are at their most vulnerable.
A very important aspect for Radulovic to also consider is the midfield, which will be key for us, and may be the reason for the selection of 4-3-3. The main strength of the 4-3-3 system is the three-man midfield, which allows you to control the game and dominate possession, particularly when playing against a two-man midfield, which is what North Korea tend to have, whether using the 5-4-1 or the 4-4-2. This would be important as it would not just enable to put sustained pressure on them while looking for a goal but also because it would prevent them from going up at the other end too many times. Another strength we have over them is our height and strength, which we should try to use to bully them during the game and get goals from set-pieces, especially given the number of fouls they give away. This is a additional reason why Mohamad Haidar’s inclusion is important, given his set-piece delivery is of the highest quality and should give the likes of Oumari and Melki great chances to use their height and power. I think there is also an argument to start the front three that started in the 5-0 win against North Korea: Hassan Maatouk, Hilal El Helwe and Rabih Ataya. These players were brilliant in the last game against this opposition, with their pace, rotation and combinations causing havoc. Ataya’s finishing is definitely an asset that needs to be considered for this game, despite his fitness issues which have seen him feature scarcely at this tournament so far. Another player Radulovic can bring in for his finishing ability is Hassan Chaito Moni, who has yet feature at the Asian Cup. But his goalscoring record speaks for itself and he has shown that no matter where he plays, he scores all sorts of goals form all sorts of positions.
Finally, tomorrow, the Lebanese fans will be attending in even higher numbers that we have seen so far, with the Fans’ Association expecting at least 10 000 Lebanese fans in the 13 000 seater stadium. As they have over the course of the tournament, the fans will display their support for the team and their belief in its ability to reach its target, and they could very well give them the boost they need in order to get the big win that will guarantee them a last 16 tie against tournament favourites Iran.
Expected Starting Eleven
My personal starting eleven