On Thursday, Lebanon will play their second game of the 2022 World Cup Qualifying campaign at home against Turkmenistan. The pressure is on after opening with a defeat to North Korea and Liviu Ciobotariu and the squad will be keen to get back to winning ways in front of their own fans. A big crowd is expected for the first World Cup Qualifier on Lebanese soil since March 2016 and the first at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium since June 2013, with anticipation high among local fans.
Lebanon were poor in the game against North Korea and also disappointed in a friendly defeat to Oman last time round, but excuses of the difficulty of the trip and the conditions were given as an explanation for the defeat. This time around, Lebanon are at home, where they usually get good results, and they have a near-complete squad. Indeed, Mehdi Khalil, the biggest absentee in September, returns after having recovered from a skull fracture. His usual deputy Mostafa Matar is absent and was replaced by Nejmeh’s back up goalkeeper Ahmad Taktouk, who was part of the squad at the recent Asian Cup. The other goalkeeper is Shabab Sahel’s Ali Daher, who at 22 years of age seems to have become the number two of the National Team following a decent debut performance in the last game versus Oman.
There was one change in defence, as Nejmeh’s new left-back Abdallah Aish was brought in as competition for Shibriko. To the surprise of many, Khalil Khamis does not return after pulling out from the last squad, as does Joan Oumari, despite the latter having his ban revoked. Otherwise, Hussein Zein and Mohamad Tahan are the chosen options at right-back, with the four central defenders being Nour Mansour, Alex Melki, Kassem Zein and Moataz Jounaidi. In midfield, there is a new face in Shabab Sahel’s Hussein Rizk, who earned himself a first ever call-up. He is a versatile player who surely comes in as cover for the likes of Felix Melki, who hopefully will not be too affected by his recent lack of game time with new club AIK, and Adnan Haidar. Those two players are expected to start together in defensive midfield but Ciobotariu also has in his ranks the young and dynamic Hussein Monzer and the elegant and intelligent Ahmad Jalloul who is replacing the injured Yehya Al Hindi. Hassan Chaito Moni drops out despite having impressed during the West Asian Championship and in the first few games of the league season. Samir Ayass was also snubbed despite playing regularly in the Bulgarian top flight, although it will be a popular decision among fans who have grown frustrated by his poor recent performances. The incentive to create attacking opportunities will be on the usual crew of Hassan Maatouk, Mohamad Haidar, Nader Matar and Rabih Ataya, with Soony Saad out injured and Hassan Kourani still being overlooked. England-based striker Omar Bugiel is not in the squad but there are still three forward options in Hilal Al Helwe, Ahmad Hijazi and Mohamad Kdouh, who recently moved to Bangladesh. Bassel Jradi does not feature either after being in a similar situation to Oumari.
It is clear that Ciobotariu is beginning to get to know the players in Lebanon as he continues to make changes to the makeup of his squad, but the starting eleven is close to being set. That should help the team when it comes to getting results and these players for the most part have been playing together for a while. Another thing that is a positive for the Romanian head coach is that the league is now well underway, meaning that the players will be fitter and more able to perform at their true level. This was clear to see in Ahed’s most recent game against Akhaa with players such as Hussein Zein, Rabih Ataya and Mohamad Haidar all performing near their best.
All these are important positives going into what is a crucial game in the context of World Cup Qualifying. Lebanon’s objectives should be no less than a spot in the Third Round, which means finishing as one of the best group runners-up. A defeat away to North Korea in matchday 1 and the upcoming tasks of two games against South Korea make this game against a potential rival a must-win. Indeed, Lebanon have always built their successful campaigns on their solid home form and Ciobotariu will need to start strong in what is his first home game in charge of the Cedars.
But the Romanian is under pressure after what has been an up-and-down start. Four defeats in six games is not good showing for the new man in charge but there were positive signs particularly at the beginning and he will need to build on that and fix the cracks in the team. The main weakness last month was clearly the attack as Lebanon struggled to create meaningful chances and failed to score in both games. This has been a problem area for a while and the reliance exclusively on Maatouk to both create and score goals is proving not as effective as it used to be. Haidar and Ataya’s recent improvement in performance should help with that regard but Ciobotariu will need to make sure they get support from the full-backs Zein and Shibriko, both of whom have a lot more to offer from an offensive point of view than what has been seen so far. Another important tactical improvement that needs to be made is to provide more support for the striker, probably Hilal Al Helwe despite his lack of game time of late. The problem when players like Maatouk, Haidar, Matar and Ataya play behind the striker they tend to drop deep to get the ball leaving the striker isolated and making it difficult for him to get involved. Ciobotariu will need to have one of those players stay closer to Helwe as that will help with chance creation and link-up play.
However, attack is not the only thing Lebanon need to improve. Since Ciobotariu’s arrival and his abandonment of the defensive tactics employed by his predecessor Radulovic, the Cedars have seemed vulnerable at back. Both of North Korea’s goals came from poor defensive errors and Oman’s goal came after a player was left with an abundance of time and space to pick his spot from 20 yards out. But it’s not just the mistakes that are the problem. Ciobotariu has struggled to find a balance in the team and as a result the team is left vulnerable to counter-attacks. The defence has also looked very panicky when forced back and has resorted to a lot of last-ditch tackles. This is an understandable consequence of the drastic change in tactics but Ciobotariu will need to find solutions quickly. One of the solutions may be to play two holding midfielders such as Felix Melki and Adnan Haidar so that one of the full-backs can push up knowing that the necessary cover is there. Ciobotariu did try that against Oman so he may go with that from the start versus Turkmenistan. Let’s just hope that he has better knowledge of his players and that he has a good game plan prepared for what is far from an easy game.
Turkmenistan, the opponents on Thursday, are indeed not to be underestimated. Their performance at the Asian Cup, where they lost 3-2 to Japan in an impressive display, are proof that they are not easy to beat. They showed in the UAE that although they may have defensive weaknesses, going forward they are strong and can cause anyone problems. According to Asian football expert Martin Lowe, “they are currently undergoing a distinct organisational shift” as they look to keep up with the progress of their neighbours and build on their participation in the recent Asian Cup. They have signed an agreement with the Croatian Football Federation, hence the recent appointment as head coach of Ante Mise, who spent two years as the Croatian National Team’s assistant coach. Like Lebanon’s new coach, Mise is trying to transition the team from a defensive system to a more attacking approach in the form of a 4-2-3-1 formation with midfielder Artur Geworkyan, who has a goal in him, the pacy and direct winger Altymurad Annadurdyyev and the Uzbekistan-based midfielder Arslanmyrat Amanow picked out by Martin Lowe as the key players in this team. The latter in particular is the man Lebanon should look at stopping in order to avoid being on the wrong end of a surprise result, and he showed his quality at the Asian Cup scoring a wonder goal against Japan. He also scored in their opening 2-0 win away against Sri Lanka which was followed by a 2-0 home defeat to group favourites South Korea. Looking towards the game, Lowe said: “They looked good against Sri Lanka and South Korea, but of course neither result was a surprise. I’m looking for them to really test Lebanon and feel there can be a real shock on the cards.”
It is clear that Lebanon are strong favourites particularly at home and there is huge excitement building up to this game but Turkmenistan is a dangerous team and have it in them to cause what would not just be serious upset but also a huge blow to Lebanon’s hopes of reaching the third stage of qualifying. A negative result would also put Ciobotariu’s job in jeopardy and knock down the optimism that has built up recently among fans.
My Predicted XI