Lebanon kicked off their 2022 World Cup Qualifying campaign in Pyongyang on Thursday with a 2-0 defeat against familiar foes North Korea. Two goals by Jong Il-Gwan were enough to see the hosts claim an important victory, with Lebanon captain Hassan Maatouk missing two good chances including a second-half penalty. The victory puts North Korea in a very good position ahead of their trip to group underdogs Sri Lanka. On the other hand, there are already questions being asked of Lebanon and their new head coach after the loss.
These two teams had already faced off three times in the last two years, with a 2-2 draw in Pyongyang being followed by 5-0 and 4-1 victories for the Cedars. However, despite their good recent record against the North Koreans, this game was by no means an easy one for Lebanon, with the trip to North Korea being a notoriously difficult one. Indeed, the Lebanese squad needed 26 hours of travel to get to Pyongyang from Beirut via Abu Dhabi and Beijing, only to find very unfavourable conditions with there being no communication with the outside world as per North Korean Government policy and with the food there also being a problem for the players. And then the Lebanese players were greeted in the stadium by a very intimidating atmosphere, as the Kim Il-Sung Stadium was filled with 50,000 fans all dressed in the same uniform and all making great noise in support of the home side. In addition, Lebanon entered the game missing several key players, not least their number one goalkeeper Mahdi Khalil, who fractured his skull in Ahed’s Arab Champions Cup tie against Ittihad Jeddah. Meanwhile, North Korea were entering the match with renewed optimism having recently won the Intercontinental Cup, which included Syria, India and Tajikistan.
For Liviu Ciobotariu’s first qualifying game in charge of the Cedars, he lined up with a 4-3-3 formation. 23-year old Mostafa Matar, who has been Mahdi Khalil’s understudy for the past two years and who plays for Salam Zgharta in the Lebanese Premier League, started in goal for only his third cap. In front of him, Mohamad Tahan was the right-back of choice with Ansar’s Shibriko starting out on the opposite side and Alex Melki and Nour Mansour pairing up in the middle. Felix Melki, who recently joined Swedish champions AIK, was chosen as the holding midfielder with Samir Ayass and Nader Matar either side of him. Captain Hassan Maatouk started on the left of the front three and was accompanied by Mohamad Haidar on the right and Hilal Al Helwe upfront.
The game started at a decent tempo with Lebanon committing men forward trying to continue the attacking football they had displayed at the West Asian Championships and North Korea trying to hit them quickly on the counter-attack and it did not take long for that strategy to prove effective for the home side, as a long ball found Jong Il-Gwan, who plays his club football for Swiss Super League side Luzern, in behind Alex Melki and Shibriko before the striker rounded Matar and finished into the empty net. It was a poor goal to concede from a Lebanese point of view, with the defensive line all over the place and a lack of communication leading to Melki and Shibriko getting in each other’s way. It was a bad start from Lebanon but it would not get any better for the Cedars as they struggled to get a grip on the game and keep a bit of possession. North Korea’s game plan, which focused on quick counter-attacks through long balls in behind the defence caused Lebanon a lot of problems with the backline in particular lacking organisation and looking panicky every time they were called into action. This could not have been helped by having such an inexperienced goalkeeper as Mostafa Matar who himself did not look confident during the game.
The extent to which Lebanon were open defensively can not come too much as a surprise. It is a completely understandable consequence of the drastic change in approach of Ciobotariu in comparison to Radulovic. While Radulovic had built a well-drilled machine playing consistently in a deep-sitting back five, Ciobotariu is looking to make Lebanon a more expansive team with a medium-to-high defensive block and preferring to play with a back four. This loss of defensive rigidity is bound to make Lebanon open and lack organisation as the players still try to grasp the new positional instructions during this transition. But the consequences are serious and Ciobotariu will need to fix these issues quickly. North Korea’s long ball game exposed these weaknesses and stretched the Lebanese defence leaving the centre-backs a lot of ground to cover with the full-backs, particularly Tahan, repeatedly finding themselves pushed too high up the pitch when in defensive transition. Unlike in a back five where you have the middle centre-back there to cover the other centre-backs as they get dragged out wide, this is not the case in a back four and it was clear that the Lebanese players need some time to get used to the new tactics. And this was again the problem that led to the second goal, which ended in a terrific finish by Jong Il-Gwan but which saw some horrendous defending immediately preceding that. Indeed, the second goal, which came not long after half-time, came from a throw-in as Samir Ayass failed to stay with his man. He then played a long ball in the direction of the Swiss-based forward who benefitted from Tahan completely misreading the flight of the ball before he hit a smashing half-volley that flew past a helpless Mostafa Matar and into the near top corner. North Korea were superior throughout the game as they consistently found gaps in the Lebanese backline and benefitted from Lebanon’s poor marking on the pitch and late timing for the press which left big holes in the middle as well as at the back. Finally Ciobotariu would have been very disappointed in his team’s defending of set-pieces with the North Koreans being left several times completely unmarked in the penalty area.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s in possession game was not much better, despite Ciobotariu’s insistence on the offensive side of the game. Unlike their performances in the West Asian Championship, the Cedars struggled to keep possession and we didn’t see much of the attractive football that was being played in Iraq just over a month ago. The midfield particularly struggled to win the battle in the middle of the field. Samir Ayass, who has been playing well since his return to Bulgaria, was lethargic and wasteful in possession. Felix Melki did not provide the same dynamism and power that proved so popular with the Lebanese fans at the Asian Cup and he also did not seem suited to play the holding midfield role. Indeed, in a system like Ciobotariu’s that wants to dominate the ball, you need a holding midfielder who will provide a good link-up between the defence and the midfield and who is good enough on the ball to allow his team to play through the press and then dictate the tempo of the match. Haitham Faour had filled that role well for so many years but his recent international retirement has pushed Ciobotariu to find a replacement and it was clear from the game in Pyongyang that Felix Melki is not that man. Melki struggled and as a result Lebanon were unable to play out from the back. This mean they resorted to long balls which favoured North Korea. Hilal Al Helwe was isolated upfront and was often seen making runs down the side to try and get involved and stretch the North Korean backline, but then when he got it there would be no one else in the box. This proved to be a problem for Lebanon throughout the game as they created very little chances. But Hassan Maatouk had two great opportunities to score. In the first half, Helwe played Maatouk through on goal but the latter could not push the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper who made a great tackle. And the North Korean goalkeeper was to deny Maatouk again in the second-half after Lebanon were awarded a penalty for a clear handball. However, Maatouk’s effort was poor and easily saved by Tae-song An. Lebanon did begin to put pressure towards the end of the game, and Omar Bugiel, who had replaced Felix Melki after the latter suffered a head injury, made a great impact. The Sutton United striker, who missed the Asian Cup through injury, came on and brought an injection of energy and intensity and his arrival also helped Helwe to be more involved. Their link-up play even caused the North Koreans one or two problems, with Bugiel at one point ready to run through on goal before being stopped by a professional foul, having been set up by Helwe. And then it was Bugiel’s turn to set up Helwe who went for the overhead kick and was not too far away from the target. Ataya also came on replacing Tahan and made a decent impact and Nader Matar had a shot from just inside the box but he pulled it wide. One thing that was very noticeable was that Lebanon did not take a single long shot after having proved so dangerous from these in the West Asian Championships.
Overall, Ciobotariu would have learned a lot from Thursday’s game and luckily for him, he has a friendly game against Oman to help him do so more finetuning before the next qualifier which is at home against Turkmenistan and which has now become a must-win game if Lebanon want to qualify for the next round of World Cup Qualifying. Oman are a decent team and made the knockout stages at the recent Asian Cup but they are also under the leadership of a new coach and needed two late goals to overturn a 1-0 deficit and beat India. I’m not expecting too many changes from Lebanon’s point of view as the priority for Ciobotariu remains to find his best eleven and prepare for the next round of qualifiers. Mostafa Matar will benefit from much-needed international experience as his place as Khalil’s deputy becomes assured. The only probable change in the back four will be Hussein Zein coming in for Tahan after he failed to impress, with Mansour and Melki looking like the centre-back partnership for the near future after the FA announced their decision to kick out both Joan Oumari and Bassel Jradi from the National Team after they “refused the call-up” for the game against North Korea. Shibriko remains the only option at left-back as Nassar Nassar and Maher Sabra recover from their long-term injuries. But it is in midfield and in attack where the selections will be interesting. Ciobotariu went with a more conservative 4-3-3 for the North Korea game but he may return to the 4-2-3-1 that he favoured in Iraq. Felix Melki, provided he is fit, will probably start but it will be interesting to see if Ayass keeps his place having disappointed on his return. Adnan Haidar is a reliable player and would help protect the defence as well as toughen up the midfield but Hussein Monzer adds a bit of enthusiasm and Nader Matar is quickly looking like he is back in favour under the new coach. Matar could of course play further up the field, although I am personally hoping for Moni to return alongside Mohamad Haidar and Rabih Ataya, who would combine well with his Ahed teammate Hussein Zein on the right side. And although Ciobotariu has four options for the striker’s position, it is likely that he sticks with Hilal Al Helwe, using Bugiel as an impact substitute. Of course, the hope is that we will see a bit more of Ahmad Hijazi, perhaps even on the wing, but he does not seem to be close to an increase in game time at the moment.
Player ratings: Mostafa Matar (5), Mohamad Tahan (4), Nour Mansour (6), Alex Melki (4), Shibriko (4), Felix Melki (5), Samir Ayass (4), Nader Matar (5), Hassan Maatouk (4), Mohamad Haidar (5), Hilal Al Helwe (5).
Subs: Omar Bugiel (6), Rabih Ataya (5), Mohamad Kdouh (N/A)
My eleven for the game vs Oman: