After having rated the performances of every member of the Cedar’s squad at this year’s Asian Cup, I will now highlight six players from the Cedars who caught the eye at the tournament.
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. However, considering all the big saves he made before and after that blunder, this criticism is ridiculously unfair and incorrect. 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 him a save percentage of 66%. He has been Lebanon’s number 1 goalkeeper for over 3 years but it is really in the last 12 to 18 months that he has grown from a talented goalkeeper into a solid and reliable one who breeds confidence in the players around him. And it is at the Asian Cup that he showed his qualities on the continental stage. He has played his whole senior career in Lebanon after a spell in Swedish youth football, winning titles for both Safa and Ahed and with the AFC Cup coming up soon, expect to see him put in more great performances on the continental level. Surely it is only a matter of time before we see him move to a bigger league, and that could happen soon if Ahed win the AFC Cup this year.
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 to the squad 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 even if 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 did not go unnoticed, and he ended up signing a contract with Qatar Stars League side Al Khor. This will be his first club experience outside his home country after having spent his whole club career to date in Sweden, most recently earning promotion to the first division with Eskilstuna.
Felix Melki played all three games and only missed the last 15 minutes of the first match, displaying passion, determination, high work-rate and incredible fitness levels. 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 also Lebanon’s first goal at an Asian Cup since October 2000, opening 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. Not many people knew about Felix Melki before the tournament started, with him having only played twice for the Lebanese National Team prior to the tournament and spent much of his career in the second tiers of Sweden and Turkey. But during this Asian Cup he made a name for himself not just in Lebanon but in Asia. And after earning promotion for his club side in Sweden at the end of last year, his stock continues to rise and he will spend 2019 playing his first year of top flight football. If he continues from where he left off in the UAE, it will not be long before bigger offers come. In fact, he has already confirmed that there has been interest from several clubs since the end of the tournament, although he has remained put for now.
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 Lebanon’s best player against the Saudis as he took the initiative to try and fashion chances and bring his team 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. This saw him win multiple free-kicks up the pitch, giving his team a chance to pose an attacking threat. 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 as him. 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 numerous 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. And after underwhelming spells in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, he will be desperate for another chance to shine in a big league. And now that he is more experienced, more mature and more intelligent, it seems like the perfect opportunity to sign him up, and after a failed attempt to sign him by Al Quwa Al Jawiya last summer, there will surely be more clubs interested in him after his performances in the UAE. The good news is he will have another opportunity to show his ability as Ahed challenge for the AFC Cup this year.
Captain Maatouk was the talisman of the team and although he did not shine at all times during the tournament, he was still Lebanon’s main man and showed his incredible quality. He was 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 relatively 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. He definitely had the better of his defender Al Buraik, who is the starting right-back at one of Asian football’s biggest clubs. And then he further upped his game against North Korea, showing why is considered one of the greatest 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, taking 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 it was obviously Maatouk who stepped up to take and convert 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, but overall he was a real nightmare for the North Korean defenders and his impact on the game was undeniable. And towards the end of 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 as evidence of his exhaustion, but he 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, with Al Hilal rumoured to be one of the clubs considering him last summer, his performances at the Asian Cup only did him a favour in that respect. There is no doubt that there will be a real fight for his signature when his contract runs out in the summer, and someone could get themselves a real bargain.
Hilal Al Helwe
Hilal El Helwe was a little up-and-down at the start of 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. After working extra hard in training ahead of the tournament, he was rewarded by playing the full ninety minutes in all three games. Against Qatar, he put in a decent performance, spending 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, strength and most importantly his excellent first touch. 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 brilliant cross in the first half which Maatouk scuffed wide after showing his pace with a great run in behind . Then in the second half he scored two brilliant goals, the first one being a volley after on the swivel as he met 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. And although he only joined Apollon Smyrnis in the summer, he might very well move again if they get relegated, and there will surely be a number of clubs interested in the young striker after his performances at this year’s Asian Cup.
The amazing pictures above were taken by Fadi Marak.
See below for for my pictures with the players.