Lebanon did not meet expectations at the recent Asian Cup, their first in 19 years, and this meant that Montenegrin head coach Miodrag Radulovic did not have his contract renewed after four years in charge. He was replaced by the Romanian Liviu Ciobotariu, who took training with the National Team for the first time this week in preparations for the West Asian Championship which kicks off in Iraq on the 30th of July, and then the Qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 Asian Cup.
Liviu Ciobotariu had a long playing career, featuring for multiple Romanian clubs including Dinamo Bucharest, as well as spending a few years in Belgium most notably at Standard Liege. He also represented the Romanian National Team at the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships. As a coach, Ciobotariu passed by numerous clubs in Romania, taking ASA Targu Mures to within two games of the title. He also spent some time in Saudi Arabia, taking a modest Al Faisaly to a top-half finish. Most recently, he kept Botosani in the top flight of Romanian football.
The objectives of his reign are simple and obvious: qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup ideally by going through to the last stage of World Cup qualifying, and then making it to the knockout stages of the Asian Cup. But in order for Ciobotariu to achieve these goals, there are certain things that he will need to do.
Rejuvenate the squad
The first task Ciobotariu will have as head coach of the Cedars is to lower the average age of the team. At the Asian Cup, Radulovic decided to go with experience and this resulted in a squad whose average age was over 28 years old, with seven of the 23 squad players aged 30 or over and only four being 26 years old or younger. The youngest player in the squad was back-up goalkeeper Mostapha Matar at 23 years old. If Ciobotariu wants to succeed, he needs to set out a four-year plan so that he can arrive at the 2023 Asian Cup with a group of players that have been playing together throughout the Qualification campaign and not have the need to bring in last-minute, inexperienced additions to the squad. Indeed, we cannot start the qualification campaign relying on players who will not be able to see it through. And although this rejuvenation has clearly already begun, with Ahmad Taktouk and Walid Ismail (34 years old each), having been overlooked for the preliminary squad picked this time around, and seven players having been brought in from the last Olympic Squad, this is not enough. All players that are 26 and above right now will be aged 30 or more when we get to the Asian Cup, and only four players from the recent Asian Cup squad do not fall into that category. This means that more experienced players need to be replaced. For instance, ex-Ansar captain Moataz Jounaidi is one of the most experienced players in the squad having played in multiple professional leagues around Asia and having been part of the National Team since 2008. He has also had a great season with his club and performed really well at the Asian Cup in January. However, at 33, he will not be able to complete the qualification campaign and therefore should not be part of the National Team anymore, as hard a decision as that may be. Leaving him out would make room for Ahed’s 24-year old centre-back Khalil Khamis, who has been in tremendous form this season and is entering his prime career years. Ali Hamam, Nejmeh’s captain, is another player who should no longer be selected as the 32-year old right-back has looked past his best and has been struggling with injuries since he returned to Nejmeh 18 months ago. His removal would allow Ciobotariu to incorporate Ahed’s Hussein Zein, who has been undoubtedly the best right-back in the country for the past two years. Otherwise, Ahed’s Hussein Monzer, who at 22 has become one of the best midfielders in the country and constitutes a massive prospect, will surely take the place of Samir Ayass who has clearly lost a lot of fitness since joining Ahed two years ago. Captain and talisman Hassan Maatouk (31) is an exception to the age rule given he is still the Cedars’ best player and is definitely good enough to play until the next Asian Cup, as is defender Joan Oumari (30). But players like Hassan Chaito Moni (30), Rabih Ataya (almost 30) and Mohammad Zein Tahan (32), should also be candidates for the drop, despite the fact they still have plenty to offer to the National Team, as they can be replaced by younger players such as Soony Saad (26), Ahmad Hijazi (24) and Mohamad Kdouh (21). There are even some teenagers that deserve a look-in, such as Tadamon Sour goalkeeper Hadi Mortada and Nejmeh duo Ali El Hajj and Khalil Bader. Clearly, Ciobotariu has a lot of young talent to choose from and he is definitely on the right track with his first squad, but he will need to make sure that he builds a team now that will be able to do the whole qualification campaign together.
Keep what Radulovic built
There is no doubt that Ciobotariu will want to instil his own philosophy into the players and put his mark on the Lebanese National Team, but Radulovic did a good job and the Romanian should not move too far away from what his predecessor did. Radulovic managed to create a very good atmosphere in the dressing room and build a tight-knit group mostly with the local-based players. Whatever personnel changes Ciobotariu decides to make, he needs to ensure he doesn’t disturb the harmony in the group. For instance, the return of Bassel Jradi after he walked out at the Asian Cup will not be met with satisfaction from all the players and he will have to ensure Jradi reintegrates well into the squad. Another positive that came out of Radulovic’s time with the Cedars is the defensive organisation and defensive solidity that became a trait of the team and that saw big teams such as Jordan, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all struggle to create many meaningful opportunities in their games with Lebanon. Even if Ciobotariu decides to move away from the back five preferred by Radulovic, he needs to maintain this strength as it makes Lebanon tough opponents for everyone in the continent.
Build the team around Jradi
Ciobotariu will have to change the team a little though, and one change he will need to make is the reintroduction of Bassel Jradi. Jradi only joined the team right before the Asian Cup, playing three games and all of them out of position, either as a false nine or a right-sided attacker. But Jradi is a player of great quality, shining for Hajduk Split, one of the biggest clubs in Croatia who just qualified for the Europa League. And unlike most of the players we have, Jradi is only 25, meaning that over the next four years up until the Asian Cup, he will be at the peak of his career. That is something we need to make the most of. Ciobotariu needs to create a system that gets the best out of Jradi; Jradi could be one of the best players in Asia and we can’t pass on the opportunity to have him firing us to new heights. This means that he needs to be playing in his preferred number 10 role and needs to be given the freedom to express himself. His technical ability, whether that be his dribbling, his passing or even his finishing, will all be great assets to the team. But he is also a very athletic player and that makes him an even bigger weapon for us to use. This is not to say that he shouldn’t have defensive duties – Lebanon are not good enough to be able to have a player exempt from defending – but the system needs to be engineered in a way that maximises his attacking threat. And as there were already signs of it in the friendlies leading up the Asian Cup, Jradi should be able to have a good partnership with Hassan Maatouk, and there is no doubt that having those two combining and getting the best out of each other will make Lebanon a much stronger side.
This leads us to the next task for Ciobotariu: improve our attacking potency. While Radulovic had made us defensively solid, we did have somewhat of a struggle scoring goals under his reign. During his four years in charge, we only scored more than 2 goals in a game on three occasions (Laos, North Korea x2) and we had an average of just 1.2 goals per game. And in the 35 matches of Radulovic’s reign, there were 15 games during which we failed to score. Part of the reason for the lack of goals is the exclusion of Mohammed Ghaddar, the best Lebanese striker at the time, halfway through the Radulovic era because of a dispute with the federation. There was a clear struggle to replace him, which saw players such as Soony Saad, Bassel Jradi and Hassan Maatouk play as a false nine several times instead of a proper centre-forward. Hilal Al Helwe was young and inexperienced when Ghaddar was kicked out but he has progressively improved and he showed at the Asian Cup that he can now be a reliable source of goals. It is also encouraging to see other Lebanese strikers coming through and getting called up after their good form in the domestic league such as Ahmad Hijazi and Mohamad Kdouh. But the goalscoring problem was not solely down to a lack of striking options. We struggled to create chances because of our defensive tactics and the lack of attacking organisation, as well as our over-reliance on Hassan Maatouk to create our chances. This is not to say that Ciobotariu needs to turn Lebanon into a free-flowing attacking team, but he will need to make our attacking more of a team effort by creating a system that gets the best out of our many attacking weapons and by working on attacking patterns that the players can recreate in games. After all, we have so many good creative and skilful attacking players: Hassan Maatouk, Bassel Jradi, Mohamad Haidar, Rabih Ataya, Soony Saad to name a few. It is just about getting the best out of them.
Increase the number of players playing abroad
Ciobotariu’s final task will be to increase the number of players in our squad who are playing abroad in professional leagues. First, he should encourage our best players to leave the domestic league and attempt to increase their chances of doing that, whether by putting them in the best conditions to impress when playing for the National Team, or by using his contacts to try and find them clubs abroad. He must also look more to the diaspora, the way Radulovic has already done with the likes of Helwe, Ayass and the Melki brothers. There is so much Lebanese talent playing in top leagues around the world but the reason they are not playing for the Cedars in most cases is simply that they have not been asked. Some are already playing for the National youth teams of other countries. But there are also some excellent players who aren’t playing for anyone else and therefore would be available for a call-up, with the most notable ones being SV Hamburger Reserves’s captain Khaled Mohssen, Brazil-born full-back Victor Calarge currently playing in the Spanish third-tier, and Rabah Mazbouh who is a 19-year old striker currently playing in the second-tier in Belgium having just left Standard Liege’s u-23s. We should not ignore our options abroad and some of these players could really strengthen the National Team. It is also possible that by bringing more players who are playing abroad into the squad, the established players currently based in Lebanon would feel pushed to go abroad in order to keep their places in the team. We could even see an increase in interest from abroad in Lebanese talent as foreign, especially Europe-based, teams would be becoming increasingly familiar with Lebanon and the talent we have.