In their last group game on Thursday night, Lebanon managed to win 4-1 against North Korea, which meant that they ended the group stages with 3 points, a -1 goal difference and 4 goals scored, exactly like Vietnam, the third-placed team in Group D. However, unfortunately, Lebanon’s overall tally of 7 yellow cards compared to Vietnam’s 5 means that Vietnam proceed to the next round instead of the Cedars through the fair-play rule that comes as a controversial tiebreaker after points, goal difference and goals scored. What a devastating way for the Cedars to go.
Since the defeat to Saudi Arabia on Saturday which left Lebanon with 0 points from the first two games, the team has been focused on going into the North Korea game with the target of winning by as big a margin as possible in order to guarantee qualification to the last 16. As the other groups came to a close throughout the week, the picture started to form for our team. Bahrain guaranteed themselves qualification with a last-minute winner against India, leaving them on 4 points. In group B, Palestine earned themselves a second point against Jordan, and with it a small but real chance at playing the last 16. And then Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam beat Philippines and Yemen respectively to finish each on 3 points. Meanwhile, the Lebanese players were training daily in Sharjah, working almost exclusively on attacking patterns and finishing in order to end a run of 7 games without a goal. After their 5-0 win over North Korea last year, the Cedars were confident that they would beat North Korea, but the target was to score enough goals to go through. And earlier on Thursday, when Oman beat Turkmenistan 3-1, with two Omani goals clinching the 3 points, and with it a place in the last 16, in the last 5 minutes of the game, it became clear to Lebanon that they needed to win by 4 goals or by 3 with at least 5 goals scored. This was because of their relatively high yellow cards tally (5 before the third match), which meant they couldn’t have it go down to fair-play.
So Lebanon set up much more offensively, changing formations and personnel in the process. Radulovic decided to line up with a 4-3-3. Mansour replaced Jounaidi at centre-back while Alex Melki moved over to right-back as Ali Hamam dropped out of the side. Walid Ismail returned to the team after Kassem El Zein had played on the left of the defence against the Saudis. Nader Matar and Samir Ayass joined Felix Melki in a three-man midfield, with Haytham Faour moving to the bench. And the front three of Haidar, Helwe and Maatouk remained. This was a lineup clearly selected to dominate the game and create loads of chances. But Rabih Ataya’s exclusion caused some upset, including from me, as he might be one of the best finishers we have but also has a tendency to turn up in the big moments.
What had slightly worried me before the game was that everyone was talking about trying to score as many goals as possible, almost if we were playing an attack vs defence game instead of a proper match. But despite these concerns I could not have predicted the way the game started. Indeed, a clear naivety and lack of experience in the Lebanese team saw them start really poorly, with nerves probably also playing their part. North Korea benefitted from the slow start and pushed forward in the early stages, looking dangerous at times. Then, in the 8th minute of the game, Nader Matar’s fair challenge on Pak Kwang-ryong was wrongly, and pretty belatedly, penalized, with the North Korean forward picking himself up to hit the resulting free-kick low and round the wall and underneath the scrambling Mehdi Khalil, who will not want to see that goal ever again. It was an uncharacteristic mistake from Khalil but it represented the state of mind Lebanon had started the game in, and the players seemed shocked at the fact they were trailing. It took them a while to get control of the match but in the 26th minute, Hassan Maatouk took matters into his own hands as he so often does, going on a mesmerizing run down the byline from the left hand-side, skipping past three North Koreans before cutting it back for Felix Melki to score his first international goal and draw the Cedars level. This goal changed everything. Lebanon slowly regained confidence and concentration and began to dominate proceedings and the chances started to come one after the other. Not even five minutes after the equalizer; Mohamad Haidar pounced onto a big defensive mistake and played a great pass across goal, but North Korean goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk’s touch sent the ball in between Samir Ayass and Hilal El Helwe, who both would have had an easy tap-in. Helwe then had a header cleared off the line from the resulting corner and then a few minutes later Helwe played a low cross across the goalmouth but Maatouk’s scuffed shot went agonizingly wide. There was still time for another great chance for Lebanon, as Oumari found himself with a free header and an open goal but just couldn’t get above the ball to direct it downwards. As we entered half-time, Lebanon were carving North Korea open time and time again, creating numerous great chances without yet able to take the lead.
And the second half continued in the same vein. A long-range effort was comfortably gathered by the goalkeeper before Felix Melki and Helwe missed from successive set-pieces both brilliantly delivered by Haidar. And then came Lebanon’s second goal in the 65th minute. Oumari played a great pass through the lines into Haidar who took it on the half-turn, before crossing it towards Helwe who swiveled to catch the ball from slightly behind him and hit it sweetly on the volley into the bottom corner. Lebanon began to build more momentum, and Ataya’s substitution of Nader Matar was having a big impact as it saw Haidar move to a more central role from where he could roam freely and use his creativity, all while having Ataya’s pace and dribbling threat causing even more trouble to the North Korean backline. Meanwhile at the other end, North Korea went up a couple of times on the counter-attack without troubling us too much. Lebanon came so close to scoring a third goal but a series of big defensive blocks and scrappy protecting of the goal by the North Koreans stopped that from happening. Lebanon missed another few great chances before North Korea, with 15 minutes to go, found themselves on the counter in a 5v2 situation but luckily Khalil was there to rescue us. Radulovic made another substitution as defensive midfielder Adnan Haidar came on for his Asian Cup debut in the place of Samir Ayass, probably with the thinking behind it being that he would stop North Korea from counter-attacking and therefore allowing more time for Lebanon to get the goals needed. Lebanon got their third goal very soon, as Ataya was brought down in the penalty area, and Maatouk converted what is his 20th goal for the National Team, equalling the all-time record set by Roda Antar. Lebanon had ten minutes to go, plus a big chunk of stoppage time given how much time-wasting we had seen from the North Koreans, in order to get the two goals they needed to clinch qualification. The crowd, who had been supporting and pushing the team non-stop throughout the game was raising their volume and you could feel the momentum building for the Cedars and North Korea were finding it really difficult to handle the constant pressure they were being put under. Hassan Chaito Moni, one of the best finishers in the squad, came on for Nour Mansour in Radulovic’s last throw of the dice to try and snatch that last spot in the last 16. Mehdi Khalil made a couple of massive saves to keep the score as it was with North Korea enjoying the extra space since Mansour’s withdrawal. You could also sense Lebanon’s fitness levels starting to drop, with Maatouk in particular looking exhausted out there after he had spent the whole game running all over the place and taking responsibility for his team in the manner of a true captain and leader. And then Ataya missed a golden opportunity having been played through on goal only to be denied by the onrushing goalkeeper before Oumari hit the ball way over the bar from ten yards out on the end of a cut-back. Hilal El Helwe finally made it 4-1 in the 98th minute with a brilliant finish, smashing the ball from the edge of the box into the top corner of the net. But the referee blew the whistle quickly after, sending the Lebanese into heartbreak, as multiple players fell to the ground and collapsed into tears.
These players had put in a massive effort into the game and recorded the country’s first win at a major tournament, but it unfortunately was not enough as Vietnam, who had equal points, goal difference and goals scored, went through due to their inferior total number of yellow cards. It is definitely a heart-breaking way to go out, especially when you go back to think about the incorrect yellow card given to Maatouk in the first game for an alleged handball. But in the end, the players had given their all and created all the chances and a bad start coupled with some real bad luck, not just on Thursday night but throughout the tournament, proved costly for the men in red. On the plus side, the fans stayed after the games to celebrate the efforts of their players in a wonderful show of appreciation, with the players returning the favour with applause for the people who supported them throughout the tournament.
Lebanon Player Ratings: Mehdi Khalil (8); Robert Alexander Melki (6), Nour Mansour (7), Joan Oumari (7), Walid Ismail (5); George Felix Melki (9), Samir Ayass (6), Nader Matar (6); Mohamad Haidar (8), Hassan Maatouk (9), Hilal El Helwe (9) Substitutions: Rabih Ataya (8), Adnan Haidar (7), Hassan Chaito Moni (6)