Lebanon started their West Asian Championship campaign with a 1-0 defeat to hosts Iraq, but there were numerous positives to take from the Cedars’ first performance under new head coach Liviu Ciobotariu. On what was a great occasion in the city of Karbala, where Iraqis filled the stadium to watch their National Team’s first competitive match on home soil in over a decade, it was the men in red who played the better football, and although they returned empty-handed, fans were left encouraged by what they had seen.
This was Ciobotariu’s first taste of action as head coach of the Lebanese National Team, and in his own words, the team was “not ready” for this game. Indeed, preparations were minimal, with most members of the squad having only recently returned to preseason and played very few games with their clubs before joining up with the National Team. Preparations were even worse for Ahed players, who had returned to preseason two weeks later than everyone else and were yet to play any games. This obviously had an effect on the starting lineup chosen by the Romanian coach.
For his first encounter, Ciobotariu went with a very attacking 4-1-4-1 formation. In defence, he went with experience, choosing Mohamad Tahan instead of Hussein Zein at right-back, snubbing Khalil Khamis in favour of a duo of Kassem Zein and Nour Mansour in the centre of defence, and selecting Hassan Chaito Shibriko at left-back. In front of them, Yahya Al Hindi was charged with protecting the back four despite being without a club for the past month. Nader Matar and Hassan Chaito Moni both started in attacking midfield roles, with captain Hassan Maatouk starting on the left, and Soony Saad starting on the right. Upfront, Ciobotariu went with Ahed striker Mohamad Kdouh, who was getting his international debut, as was Al Hindi.
And it was not just on paper that Ciobotariu’s team selection was attack-minded, with Lebanon starting on the front foot and taking the game to hosts Iraq, who began the game lethargically. Ciobotariu was clearly looking to recreate the fluid and free-flowing attacking style seen at Ansar, hence the selection of Maatouk, Moni and Saad together as part of the attack. These three players had indeed shined five days earlier while playing for their club side in an Elite Cup derby match with Nejmeh, a game that Ciobotariu attended and observed. In general, it is always a good idea for national team coaches to use the relationships and styles of play being built by clubs, such as how Vicente del Bosque made the most of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona with Spain or the way Joachim Low benefited from Guardiola’s Bayern Munich with Germany or even how the bulk of Felix Sanchez’s triumphant Qatar mostly consisted of Al Sadd players. And in this case, Ciobotariu wanted to make the most of Ansar’s attacking potency and we did indeed see the good link-up between Maatouk, Moni and Saad, as they moved around exchanging positions, combined well together and knew how to get the best out of each other. And it is this combination which made Lebanon dangerous, especially in the first half.
In fact Lebanon’s first chance of the game came through this Ansar connection, as left-back Shibriko found Maatouk, who dribbled through a couple of defenders and played a long diagonal ball to Soony Saad on the opposite side before making a run in the box where he was found by Saad’s cut-back only to scuff his effort wide of the target. And this was a pattern throughout the first half, as Lebanon showed the more urgency and the more attacking intent of the two sides, with Hassan Maatouk and Hassan Chaito Moni at the centre of that. Lebanon had a couple of chances through set-pieces, with one particular Maatouk free-kick inches away from being tapped in by the outstretched leg of Nour Mansour, who also headed wide from a cross. A couple more attacks developed for the Cedars without them being able to show the necessary composure when it came to the end product. Then Iraq started to grow into the game, and they created their first opportunity with 37 minutes played as Hussein Ali was played with a long ball from midfield but as he took on the half-volley Kassem Zein threw himself in its way to block it. Even though Lebanon dominated possession, they did look vulnerable and panicky every time Iraq got forward and they resorted to last-ditch challenges. Then, just on the stroke of halftime, Lebanon pressed Iraq into giving the ball away in a very dangerous position, with Maatouk the player getting the ball with the Iraqi team all pushed up the field and only the two centre-backs in between the Lebanese captain and the goal, but Maatouk was closed down well and with no support from his teammates, was forced to shoot straight at the defender.
The second half started in a similar pattern, with Lebanon winning the ball high up the pitch with this time Mohamad Tahan being the one to capitalise on Iraq’s slowness in possession. Tahan advanced and found himself in a good position to threaten the Iraqi goal, with Mohamad Kdouh in support at the far post, but in the end, Tahan dragged his effort wide of the target, to the Iraqis’ relief. But then, Iraq started to improve just as the energy levels of the Lebanese players began to dip. And in the 57th minute, Iraq took the lead, with both Kassem Zein and Nour Mansour overcommitting and leaving big gaps in defence, gaps that were exploited by Hussein Ali. Quickly following the goal, a change was made, with Ciobotariu handing another debut, this time to Ahed midfielder Hussein Monzer, who came on in the place of Yahya Al Hindi, in what was surely an attempt to increase the attacking threat of Lebanon in order to find an equaliser. Lebanon had another opportunity from a set-piece, as Maatouk’s free-kick reached Kdouh in the box, but the latter couldn’t bring the ball under control and Iraq managed to clear. Saad also tried to find Kdouh, this time from a low cross from the left side after he had dribbled past the Iraqi right-back, but his cross was cut out. Ciobotariu made a second attacking change, with Rabih Ataya, Lebanon’s usual supersub, replacing Moni. Saad caused more trouble down the left side, dispossessing the Iraqi right-back and putting another good cross that was cleared away. Ataya had a decent impact off the bench as well and looked sharp, taking on players and having a shot on goal from long range as well. But as we approached the last 20 minutes of the game, Iraq started to find more gaps and began looking dangerous on the counter-attack, capitalising on the disappearing energy of the Lebanese. It was at that moment that Nour Mansour got injured and was replaced by Moataz Jounaidi. Hussein Ali had a decent effort saved by Mehdi Khalil. Another Iraqi shot was deflected out for a corner as Iraq started to pile on the pressure in their attempt to secure the win with a second goal, but Lebanon managed to survive, although this stopped them from putting their own pressure to try and find the equaliser.
The result was of course very disappointing, but the performance was very encouraging in terms of the bigger picture, and very enlightening as this was the first time Lebanese fans got a look at Lebanon under its new coaching staff. And the main reason which made Lebanese fans happy was the attacking approach that the Cedars entered the game with. This comes after the frustration that followed Lebanon’s Asian Cup campaign, when former head coach Radulovic had been criticised for stifling our attacking talent with his overly defensive tactics. On Monday, this was definitely not the case, as the likes of Hassan Maatouk, Hassan Chaito Moni, Soony Saad and Rabih Ataya played with a freedom to express themselves, leading us to see their dribbling, creativity and flair on display and making Lebanon a much more attractive proposition. Obviously, it was not all rosy from an attacking sense, especially given that Lebanon didn’t score, but the way Ciobotariu seemed to base his attacking strategy on Ansar was encouraging and this will definitely help with the coherence of the team as these players will be training together on a daily basis. Obviously, there are some things to work on from an attacking sense, with the composure in the final third being the main point. But there was also a lack of presence upfront, with Mohamad Kdouh finding himself very isolated and struggling to get involved in the game. This was always going to be a problem with Kdouh upfront and it may be that Ahmad Hijazi, whose overall game is better than his Ahed teammate, could provide a better alternative in the number nine role. Nader Matar was another player who had limited influence in the game and he will need to step up if he is to start in the first qualifier against North Korea. And the full-backs, especially Shibriko, also failed to show their full ability in an attacking sense, despite the instructions from the coach seemed to demand that one full-back be involved every time Lebanon attacked. Lebanon’s attacking will surely improve with the return of expatriates Bassel Jradi, Hilal Al Helwe and Omar Bugiel, but it will be interesting to see how things develop during this tournament and whether we manage to take some of the attacking responsibility off of Maatouk, who still seems like our most likely source of goals from open play. The defensive side of things was definitely less encouraging, with the Cedars looking insecure whenever Iraq got forward. Kassem Zein was at his usual solid best except for an error in the Iraq goal, and Mansour did show his quality on the ball but looked a little off the pace from a defensive standpoint, although this could be down to a fitness issue. The full-backs were decent but made a few mistakes and although Yahya Al Hindi put in an excellent performance in the middle of the park, he struggled to cover all the gaps with little support from Moni and Matar and this led to the defence being exposed on several occasions. Overall, many tactical lessons were learned and Ciobotariu is still trying to find his strategy and strongest lineup.
The next game will be against neighbours Syria, who enter this tournament in poor form after having gone memorably close to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. They finished bottom of their group in the Asian Cup, despite expectations back home that they could go all the way, drawing against Palestine and losing to Jordan and Australia. That was followed by a 1-0 loss to Iraq, a 1-0 victory over Jordan and a 0-0 draw with the UAE in March, before they were beaten 5-0 by Iran and 2-0 by Uzbekistan in friendly matches in May. They then participated in the 2019 Hero Intercontinental Cup where they beat North Korea 5-2, lost to Tajikistan 2-0 and drew 1-1 with India. Syria are also going into this tournament with largely inexperienced squad and are missing a number of important players, most notably attacking duo Omar Al Soma and Omar Khrbin, talented midfielder Mohammaed Osman and experienced defender Omar Midani. Syria usually play in a rigourous 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 and focus on being solid defensively and look to create chances through crosses and set-pieces, but with the absence of their two main strikers, their approach may vary. They do come into this tournament with significantly better preparation, having participated in a tournament in July, which means their fitness levels will be higher than ours. But this should be an exciting and tense game in typical derby fashion between two evenly-matched sides.
Lebanon Player ratings vs Iraq: Mehdi Khalil (6/10); Mohamad Tahan (6/10), Nour Mansour (6/10), Kassem Zein (7/10), Hassan Chaito Shibriko (5/10); Yahya Al Hindi (7/10); Soony Saad (6/10), Nader Matar (5/10), Hassan Chaito Moni (7/10), Hassan Maatouk (7/10); Mohamad Kdouh (5/10); Hussein Monzer (6/10), Rabih Ataya (7/10), Moataz Jounaidi (6/10).