How the Lebanese players fared at the Asian Cup?

Lebanon’s Asian Cup adventure came to a tragic ending as the Cedars, despite beating North Korea 4-1, were unable to qualify for the Knockout Stages. However, notwithstanding the disappointing results, the players made us proud with their performances and were unlucky and deserved to be in the last 16. But while some players shone on the continental stage, others that did not perform to the best of their abilities. Here I will be rating every player’s performances at the tournament.

Mehdi Khalil     8

Goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil played the whole 90 minutes in all three games and performed admirably throughout that time, shining in between the posts. He made big saves to keep the score down against Qatar and Saudi Arabia and also made some key interventions against North Korea and showed how reliable and solid a goalkeeper he has become. Other than his big saves, he parried crosses away from danger and rushed off his line to close down players who were through on goal as he always showed his desire to take the initiative as a goalkeeper and help out his defenders. Of course, we cannot forget the big mistake he made against North Korea, allowing a weak free-kick to bounce past him as he misread the flight of the ball. This mistake by Khalil was huge and many have blamed him for Lebanon’s failure to reach the Second Round. I find this outrageous, given all the times he saved us before and after that blunder and in my opinion up until that moment of misjudgment he was Lebanon’s best performer at the Asian Cup. In fact, he was the eighth best goalkeeper at the tournament in terms of save percentage, with him saving 10 from 15 shots on target faced giving a save percentage of 66%. He really has improved remarkably in the last couple of year and has become a goalkeeper who plays with a confidence that breeds confidence in the players around him, and he definitely showed his ability on the continental stage and will only grow from this experience.

Ali Hamam     6

Nejmeh captain Ali Hamam started the first two games at right wing-back and completed both matches but was injured for the third game. He defended well, showing his experience and putting his body on the line for his country with some excellent blocks. However, on the ball he looked nervous, quickly looking to clear the ball or just play it safely down the line for the winger to chase. He rarely got forward despite the threat we know he can pose, although that might very well have been because of the coach’s instructions. He did score a brilliant goal against Qatar in a very important moment of the game, when he found himself unmarked on the end of a Maatouk corner and finished on the half-volley. However, the goal was wrongly disallowed by the referee. Ali Hamam did his best on the pitch but nerves seemed to affect his performances and Asia did not see the best of him.

Alex Melki     7

He was a new addition to the team but fit in seamlessly into the back three. He defended well and contributed to what was a largely solid defense and demonstrated the value of the physical attributes he brings from being a professional based in Europe, particularly in the air as he was a leader in that department, frequently heading crosses away from danger. In the first two games we saw him play very well on the right of the back three although he was partly responsible for Saudi Arabia’s second goal as he allowed Moqahwi to run in behind him to get on the end of the cross. He was a little more quiet in the third game, playing in a defensive right-back role as part of a back four, but he showed great desire and pride towards playing for his country and his performances at the tournament earned him a move to Qatar Stars League side Al Khor.

Mootaz Jounaidi     7

Jounaidi played the full ninety minutes in the first two games, starting in the middle of the back three. I honestly didn’t expect him to play such a key role during the tournament but his experience was valued by Radulovic and it is fair to say he delivered. He put in a solid performance against Qatar and then upped his game for the match against the Saudis when he was a commanding presence, especially in the air defending the numerous crosses, and was in my opinion our best defender on the night. He proved his reliability and showed everyone who doubted him that he remains an important part of this team, although he will be disappointed that he didn’t cause much of a threat from attacking set-pieces given his size and aerial prowess.

Joan Oumari     7

Oumari has become a leader in the Lebanese backline thanks to the experience he has picked up playing professional football in Germany, Turkey, the UAE and most recently Japan, and he undoubtedly delivered in the UAE, playing all three games at the Asian Cup. He used his power and strength to his advantage and defended well, whether in the air or on the ground. He did make a slight mistake against Saudi Arabia which lead to the first goal as it was his panicky clearance which deflected off Melki and into Al Muwallad’s path, although that deflection could have gone anywhere and it is harsh to blame him for it. He did also overcommit at times, leaving gaps in behind, although that is partly due to the system employed which requires the centre-backs to step forward at times to help the outnumbered midfield. And in the third game, he tried to push forward in an attempt to help us score the goals needed to qualify and did put some decent crosses in. He is another player who could have been more of a threat in the opposition area, especially as he missed a glorious opportunity to equalise against the Saudis, putting a free header from about 8 yards out just over the bar.

Walid Ismail     5

Ismail played against Qatar as a left wing-back and then against North Korea as a left-back in a back four. His selection for the National team over the past year has surprised me as he clearly struggles from a lack of pace and physicality. He was decent during his two performances but was partly at fault for the second Qatari goal as he failed to stay close to Almoez Ali who ended up converting an easy tap-in. He also often had to resort to last-ditch tackles precisely because of his incapability to keep up with fast wingers, and he was a weakness in the North Korea match towards the end as they counter-attacked on numerous occasions with him struggling to defend in those instances. He did show great experience in his defending but his lack of pace and fitness meant we were also without a threat from wide when he played. In addition, he was uncomfortable on the ball and often ended up kicking it down the line instead of looking for passes. He has been a great servant for the National Team and clearly has a lot of experience but he has become a weakness because of his lack of physical abilities and is no longer capable of coping with the fast pace and intensity of international football.

Kassem El Zein     6

Kassem El Zein only played the one game, starting at left wing-back against Saudi Arabia, which came as a surprise to many given he was a constant in the side over the last year. He didn’t look too comfortable in what is an unfamiliar role for him and, although he was very strong in the tackle, his positioning was not always correct and he found himself beaten on a few occasions by the quick combinations of the Saudis. He tried to get forward, which is more than I can say for the other wing-backs, and this helped Maatouk at least by taking some of the defensive attention away from him, but he was unable to provide substantial quality due to the fact he was playing out of position. Ultimately, he will be frustrated because even though he did his best and performed adequately, he was unable to show the full extent of his ability like he would have had he played on the right side or in the middle of the defence. Additionally, while he has no experience of playing outside the Lebanese league, his lack of game time at the tournament meant we missed his determination and passion, which he shows in everything he does on the pitch and, considering the form he was in upon entering the tournament, the fact he only featured in the one game will constitute a disappointment for him and for everyone who was looking forward to see him shine on the big stage, me included.

Mohammad Tahan     6

Tahan only played for about a quarter of an hour against the Saudis, coming on as a right winger. In that short amount of time, he was not too involved as Lebanon were fading out of the game by then, with a lot of the players tiring at that late stage, therefore making it difficult for him to make an impact. He was probably brought in to sure things up and insure we wouldn’t concede any more goals but we did not really get to see what he has to offer.

Nour Mansour     7

I was personally very disappointed that Mansour only played in the third game because I believe he is one of the most technically able players in the National Team as well as being an excellent defender. And he did not prove me wrong with his performance as he played very well against North Korea. He was very solid in defence, intercepting multiple through balls thanks to his ability to read danger as well as winning numerous tackles. And he also showed his ability on the ball, stepping out of defence when in possession and looking to thread passes through the lines to the midfielders. It is a shame that he was not used more by the coach as I believe he would have made a big difference in our game in possession as much if not more than out of it and he was a player I thought could get the attention of bigger clubs abroad as he is definitely good enough to play at a much higher level.

Haitham Faour     6.5

Faour started the first two games alongside Felix Melki in the defensive midfield role and only missed the last game because of injury. Against Qatar, he was the only member of the starting eleven without any experience of playing abroad, showing the amount of trust the coach has in him and the reflecting the consistent level of performance we have gotten used to seeing from him throughout his career for club and for country. And he did perform well against Qatar, defending with a combination of passion and intelligence. He demonstrated his toughness in the tackle and I have no doubt that a couple of the Qataris felt sore off the back of a challenge with him, but he also read the danger and intercepted multiple passes, therefore stopping the Qataris from penetrating through the middle with their short passes and combination play. And on the ball, he was one of the few players who seemed composed from the start, keeping things simple but effective. He did not hit the same height though against Saudi Arabia although that reflects more on the Saudi’s domination of the midfield than on his personal performance. Fitness may have also been an issue in his decline during the tournament. But this is a small decline because no matter what, Faour never drops underneath a 6/10 and the Asian Cup was no exception. The main disappointment for him and his admirers will be that our lack of possession meant we did not see much of the Faour that dictates the tempo for Ahed, something that may have helped us in the final match.

Felix Melki     9

Not many Lebanese fans knew about Felix Melki before the tournament started, with him having only played twice for the National Team prior to the tournament, but he has now become a big name in Lebanese football and a favourite among the fans. There are doubts among fans when seeing a player who has grown up abroad and doesn’t even speak the language represent their country, but Melki proved himself more than worthy of the shirt, demonstrating passion and a work-rate that few of his teammates could replicate. That is not a criticism of his teammates but more a proof of the high fitness levels he brings to the team. Indeed, he played all three games and only missed the last 15 minutes of the first match. He was a massive presence in the middle of the park as he covered the ground superbly to put pressure on the opposing players in possession and used his strength and size to win dual after dual, with a video of him outmuscling and outfighting two Saudi players at once going viral back in Lebanon. But it is not only his powerful performances and his great application of the tactical role he was given by Radulovic that led to the Lebanese fans singing his name for much of the final match. He also looked to use his power as an attacking asset, being one of the main driving forces of Lebanon’s hunt for an equaliser against the Saudis which saw him miss a glorious opportunity after he found himself free at the far post from a free-kick. And after that, he was the player who scored the first goal against North Korea, converting a cut-back from Maatouk which not only saw him score the equaliser, but the goal was also Lebanon’s first goal at an Asian Cup since October 2000, and opened the way for more Lebanese goals. But while I have mainly praised his physicality and determination, he also deserves to be praised from a technical standpoint as he was simple and effective on the ball, usually releasing the ball quickly and to the right teammate and not giving the ball away too often. After his performances at the Asian Cup, we hope to see much more of him in a Lebanon shirt and to be able to hear more and more Lebanese fans join the chants of ” three two one Melki number one!”.

Nader Matar     6

Nader Matar is a talented player but we did not see much of that during the tournament. He came on as a substitute in the first two games after we were already trailing as part of the coach’s attempt to get us back into the game and this proved a difficult environment to make much of an impact in as most of the players were tired and demoralized by that stage. Then he started in the third game but came off after 50 minutes having made little impact. He is a player who always does the running and his pace and physicality are two of his main strengths. But we did not see much of his offensively, particularly in the last game when his trademark runs forward from midfield would have helped a lot in our hunt for goals. He did not perform badly either but will surely be disappointed that he wasn’t able to shine, although the situations of the games had much to do with that.

Samir Ayass     6

Ayass is another player who did not perform anywhere near his best during the tournament, despite playing the last 15 minutes of the first game and the first 75 minutes if the last. He has a difficult 18 months since joining Lebanese champions Ahed from Bulgaria, struggling with numerous injuries and fitness issues and not being able to get into the starting eleven too many times. He has also put on weight during these problems and all these issues have added up and meant we seeing a shadow of the player that erupted onto the scene for the National Team two years ago. Against Qatar he did alright in difficult circumstances but he was quiet against North Korea, putting in an adequate performance when we were in need of a great one. However, the intense criticism that has been directed towards him and the coach for having selected him has been over the top in my opinion, firstly because he was not as bad as has been suggested and secondly because he remains one of the most talented players we have and his selection was totally understandable in that respect.

Adnan Haidar     7

Although Haidar only played the last 15 minutes of our campaign, he can be satisfied with his performance and surely made a case to be used more frequently. He made a great impact against North Korea, coming into the midfield when we were desperately chasing the goals that would get us qualified and using his intelligence and reading of danger to stop North Korea from counter-attacking and playing a key role in ensuring that we maintained the pressure on the North Koreans in the last stages of the game. He was also good from a technical point of view not only because of his good passing but also because he also got forward a little and helped out with our chance creation, showing a couple of nice dribbles as well.

Mohamad Haidar     8

Mohamad Haidar came on as a late substitute against Qatar but it was as a starter in the next two games that he sparkled, showing Asia all the quality he has to offer. He was our best player against the Saudis as he took the initiative to try and fashion chances and bring us up the field. His dribbling ability in particular was on show as he took on on multiple occasions what seemed like more Saudis than he could handle, only to prove to be up to the task thanks to his feints, quality left foot and excellent shielding of the ball which made it very difficult for the Saudis to get the ball off of him, something that saw him win a few free-kicks up the pitch. He also showed great vision and attempted numerous lofted through balls which would have turned into opportunities had his teammates only been on the same wavelength. He also showed excellent quality from set-pieces, delivering the corner from which Oumari should have equalised, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t take more of them. He didn’t start particularly brightly against the North Koreans and did not look comfortable on the right wing but in the second half he was moved to a more central role and that allowed him to roam around the pitch more freely and use his quality left foot to create chances. And he did not disappoint, setting up Helwe for the second goal with a great cross. Haidar is a player who is neither big nor fast but his technical quality and vision make him one of the best Lebanese players and he definitely delivered at the tournament.

Hassan Maatouk     8

Captain Maatouk was the talisman of the team and while he was good overall, he did not manage to shine throughout and struggled particularly at the beginning when he often found himself isolated and marked by multiple defenders at a time. He was especially quiet against Qatar as he struggled with the lack of options which meant he had 3 or 4 players marking him every time he had the ball. He was also quiet in the first half against the Saudis but he sprung to life in the second period, going on great runs during which he displayed his wonderful dribbling ability and putting in some dangerous crosses on the end of those runs. And he further upped his game against North Korea, showing why is considered one of the greatest ever Lebanese footballers ever. He took it upon himself to lead the team and be the main dangerman, especially when the team was struggling to deal with having gone a goal down and he went on a great run culminating in him setting up Melki for the equaliser. He spent the whole of the game moving around, asking for the ball, talking players on and looking to create opportunities and he was once again at the centre of the action, finding Ataya who was brought down in the penalty area and converting the resulting penalty kick. This goal made him the joint top goalscorer in Lebanon’s history, but he didn’t stop there and kept on pushing and trying to get Lebanon through. He did miss a great chance in the first half after scuffing a shot wide from a Helwe cross. And towards the game, he was understandably getting tired from all his efforts but kept on asking for the ball showing the type of captain and leader he is for this generation of Lebanese players and he stumbled on the ball a couple of times at the end due to exhaustion, but was still capable of taking the corner which resulted in Helwe’s second goal and Lebanon’s fourth. He has already received multiple offers from clubs in the Gulf willing to snatch him from Nejmeh and although the interest was always there, his perforamnces at the Asian Cup only did him a favour.

Bassel Jradi     4

Getting Bassel Jradi to choose playing for Lebanon ahead of Denmark was a major coup but we unfortunately did not benefit from it as much as we expected. After looking good in the friendlies leading up to the tournament and combining particularly well with Maatouk. And he started against Qatar and put in a decent if unspectacular performance, which saw him spend most of his time tracking back to help out Ali Hamam or looking to dribbler through a number of Qatari players at once. He found himself often isolated and struggled to combine with his attacking teammates but did put in a lot of effort and while his dribbling was not as successful as we would have liked and was only accurate with 60% of his passes but he showed his brilliant physical attributes by using his power to shield the ball from the defenders and dribble past them to good effect as well as his pace which made him a threat on the counter. However, after a disagreement with Miodrag Radulovic, Jradi walked out on the National Team before the game against Saudi Arabia, leading Maatouk to criticize his lack of professionalism in a post-match interview and Radulovic to claim that his career with the National Team. This was a real shame and it ruined what could have been a great tournament from Jradi, who would surely have been really effective against the North Koreans and most probably helped us get the goals needed to qualify. But he definitely has attitude problems and disrupted the harmony in the squad, which is why I have chosen to give him the worst rating, even if his actually performance on the pitch was good.

Rabih Ataya     7

It is a real shame that Ataya came into the tournament injured (something we would only learn after the end of the tournament) as it limited his gametime and therefore did not allow us to see as much of his quality as we would have liked. He came on as a late substitute against Saudi Arabia and while he looked dangerous, he was too hesitant in the final third, missing a glorious opportunity to shoot on goal from inside the area as he wanted to move the ball onto his strong foot and ended up wasting the chance. But there were loads of calls for the talented winger to start against North Korea, particularly for his great finishing ability and his tendency to turn up in the big moments. But he only came on as a substitute in the 50th minute, which proved not enough time for him to do quite enough to send Lebanon through. He still made a fantastic impact, looking dangerous every time he got on the ball and winning the penalty that allowed Maatouk to make it 3-1, by using his quick feet to skip past the defender who caught him with a trailing leg. His performance was amazing considering he was carrying an injury but Asia only saw glimpses of the real Ataya.

Hassan Chaito Moni     6

Hassan Chaito Moni never going to be a key player in this team but he will still be disappointed with just how little game time he was given, especially considering he is one of the best finishers in the squad and therefore should probably have played more of a role against the North Koreans. In the end, he came on for the last 15 minutes and did not make much of an impact as he lost the ball several times and did not get the opportunity to show his finishing ability.

Hilal Al Helwe     8

Hilal El Helwe was a little up-and-down during the tournament but ultimately leaves the tournament with his standing much improved and having shown his quality and potential on the continental stage. Firstly, he showed all the passion that fans want to see from a player who has lived all his life outside Lebanon, fighting for every ball on the pitch and showing passion off it, whether it was by belting out the National Anthem despite not speaking Arabic or shedding tears when his team were out. And to be fair, even in the build-up to the tournament he showed how much it mattered to him when he chose to return to Lebanon to train with the team after the camp in Bahrain instead of going home to celebrate the New Year with his family like the other expatriate players did. And he reaped the rewards, playing the full ninety minutes in all three games. Against Qatar, he put in a decent performance as he spent most of his time fighting for long balls and holding the ball up waiting for his teammates to arrive, which he did well thanks to his size and strength. However, he did not make enough runs in behind to cause danger to the Qataris, something that proved to be a problem for him throughout the tournament. He was quiet against Saudi Arabia and did not get much of a sniff at goal. However, against North Korea, he caused a lot more trouble to the defenders, putting in a great cross in the first half which Maatouk scuffed wide. Then in the second half he scored two brilliant goals, the first one being a volley after he had to swivel and catch a cross that was slightly behind him, and the second one being a smashing first-time strike into the top corner from just inside the box. He did miss a couple of half-chances in that game too but ultimately his brace was enough to make him Lebanon’s all-time top scorer in the Asian Cup. His improvement since joining Greek Super League side Apollon Smyrnis has been remarkable, an opinion echoed by assistant coach Mohammad Dekka, and his performances during the tournament are one of the main positives that Lebanon can take from this adventure as it finally seems they have a striker who can fill the boots of legend Mohammad Ghaddar.

Mostapha Matar, Ahmad Taktouk and Hassan Chaito Shibriko did not play during the tournament and were therefore not given a rating.

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