For the past 25 days, Lebanon has been taken over by an incredible uprising that has seen a big part of the Lebanese population, whether in Lebanon or throughout the various diasporas all over the globe, writing history in search of a better future. But Thursday, it is the National Team’s turn to take centre stage, with the hope that they can benefit from this momentum and unified and patriotic national movement and achieve what would be a historical result against continental giants South Korea.
The Koreans will be arriving in Beirut soon ahead of Thursday’s game, which will be taking place at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium, and there is a great desire amongst Lebanese people to take the energy of the revolution from the streets to the stands in support of their Mountakhab. Social media is already full of messages calling for people, and particularly the “revolutionaries”, to attend the game, and this should only increase as we approach the big day. The ultimate goal is to recreate the memorable scenes from the 15th of November 2011 when Lebanon clinched a spot in the fourth round of World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history with a 2-1 victory over the South Koreans in front of a packed crowd at the Sports City Stadium in Beirut. However, in the current context, a win on Thursday would surely surpass that famous game and would mark a big moment in this revolution and in this qualification campaign.
Indeed it’s important to point out that this game also has its importance with regards to this World Cup qualification campaign, with the Cedars aiming to reach the third round (current equivalent of the fourth round of 2011). After an opening defeat to North Korea -who will be the Cedars’ opponents the following Tuesday- in Pyongyang, Lebanon got themselves back on track with successive victories at home to Turkmenistan and then away against Sri Lanka. But while they are clearly underdogs, there is pressure on the Cedars to continue their winning run, as a positive result here would put Lebanon in a very healthy position in terms of qualification.
There was a lot of criticism after the performance against Turkmenistan as a number of missed opportunities from Lebanon’s point of view meant that there was a nervous ending to a game the fans felt should have been won comfortably. But despite that, there were some positives to take from that performance as the team not only looked more balanced in midfield but also looked a lot more coherent going forward. Mohamad Haidar has stepped up to become the central player of this team as Maatouk goes through a little bit of a rough patch. The Ansar player is still having a massive impact on the game but he has not been as effective as we are used to seeing him, although that may change now that he has finally broken the all-time national team goalscoring record thanks to his penalty in the win over Sri Lanka. The game against the latter of the two opponents was played in extremely difficult conditions and therefore the result was the only thing that mattered. Another big positive from those last two games was that Hilal Al Helwe, whose season has begun slowly, scored three goals in those two games and will be coming into the South Korea match with a lot of confidence.
Helwe is part of the squad that sees only two changes from the last one as Liviu Ciobotariu seems to be settling on a group of players that fit his demands and his philosophy. Those two changes see the temporarily exiled duo of Joan Oumari and Bassel Jradi return, with Safa captain Mohamad Tahan and Akhaa striker Ahmad Hijazi making way. The saga of Oumari and Jradi continues to divide opinion and the confusion surrounding their National Team status over the past few months has frustrated everyone involved in the Lebanese football scene, from fans to media to even the coaching and playing staff of the National Team. The stories of the two players differ but the issue is the same: these are two players who have played their whole careers abroad at a high level and whose egos have been causing troubles throughout their careers with the National Team from hand-picking which games they want play in to getting into fights with teammates and staff. There are therefore a lot of question marks regarding their return and whether this is in the National Team’s best interest.
In Joan Oumari’s case, his international career began in 2013 when he was called up while playing for FSV Frankfurt in the German second tier. He was sent off during his debut in a friendly against Syria and he then refused following call-ups for two years because he was upset at Italian coach Guiseppe Giannini for not being a starter. He accepted to return only after Miodrag Radulovic replaced Giannini and played a key role in Lebanon’s first ever qualification for the Asian Cup and started all three games in the final tournament in the UAE. However, he refused a call-up in September and the FA announced a ban for him from future call-ups only to then overturn their decision. He still refused to join up last month which means that this would be his first game for Lebanon since the Asian Cup back in January.
Meanwhile, Jradi made his debut for Lebanon in a friendly in 2015 but then refused to return due to his desire to play for Denmark up until a month before the Asian Cup, when he announced he had changed his international allegiance. He played in a couple of friendlies before the tournament and there was an incident between him and one of his teammates during one of the training camps but he was named in the Asian Cup squad and was one of the biggest names in that squad he was considering he is playing for Hajduk Split, one of Croatia’s best club teams. After starting the first game at the Asian Cup, he was benched for the match against Saudi Arabia and replaced with Ahed’s Mohamad Haidar. He was upset by that decision and following an argument with Radulovic he walked out in the middle of the tournament, causing great anger amongst several of his teammates including Maatouk who was very critical of Jradi in a post-match interview following on from the game against Saudi Arabia. When Radulovic left and was replaced by Ciobotariu, Jradi was expected to return but just as Oumari did, he refused the call-ups and was also temporarily banned.
And if Oumari’s return is controversial, Jradi’s return is simply a strange decision and reflects the preferential treatment that diaspora players get from the FA. There is a lot of well-justified disappointment at the FA’s decision to allow these players to return and the worry is that they will destabilize the great team spirit and unity that we have seen from the national team in Ciobotariu’s short time in charge and which are vital for Lebanon to get a positive result on Thursday. When the Romanian said in a press conference he didn’t want players ” who weren’t prepared to bleed for the National Team”, it seemed that he was closing the door to these players but there has been a change in his stance since then. What is for sure is that Oumari and Jradi return with a huge point to prove, not just in terms of their performance and value on the pitch but also in terms of their attitude and commitment to the National Team.
Fans will be hoping that these two players strengthen the National team, particularly in terms of providing solutions to the two main weaknesses the team has displayed since Ciobotariu’s arrival in the summer. Lebanon have continued in their struggle for goals from the Radulovic era and while Ciobotariu has made Lebanon a much more attacking team, the Cedars have certainly been creating more chances but there remains a problem when it comes to scoring goals, as was clear in the 2-1 win over Turkmenistan. But under Ciobotariu, we have also seen a defensive vulnerability and a lack of composure in the backline which is a direct consequence of the switch from Radulovic’s defensive tactics to Ciobotariu’s more attacking philosophy. There have been signs of improvement in that regard but Lebanon cannot afford to show any defensive weakness when facing the likes of Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-chan and Valencia’s Lee Kang-in. We shall see if Oumari and Jradi’s introduction in the defence and attack respectively will have a positive effect in this regard.
This leads us to question marks being raised over the tactics that Ciobotariu will employ for this match. We have been accustomed to seeing Lebanon setting up in a very defensive manner against the big teams but Ciobotariu has shown a willingness to play open expansive football and therefore one wonders how much he will move away from that towards a more pragmatic approach. After all, there were periods in the game against Turkmenistan when Lebanon refrained from pressing and were sitting in a deeper more conservative shape, and this can lead us to think that there will be some adjustments made to the game plan. One of these could be the decision to play with two defensive midfielders in Adnan Haidar and Felix Melki, while we could also see Oumari playing in central defence alongside Nour Mansour with Alex Melki as the right-back and Abdallah Aish or even Kassem Zein on the left. Meanwhile, from an attacking perspective, Ciobotariu will have to decide whether he goes with three attacking midfielders or only two with one extra central midfielder instead. The only problem is that choosing only two attacking midfielders would see one of Maatouk, Jradi or Mohamad Haidar being dropped to the bench and that would be a difficult decision to make. Alternatively, Jradi could play as a false nine instead of Helwe with Nader Matar brought into the midfield to sure things up a bit.
Another thing that will be taken into consideration by Ciobotariu regarding his team selection is the fitness of the players. Indeed, there has been no league in Lebanon since before the last international break (October 6th), meaning that the local players bar the ones playing for Ahed would not have had competitive action for a month. Ahed played in the AFC Cup final last Monday in which they won and this could see Ciobotariu decide to go with a lineup mainly consisting of players playing abroad and Ahed players. The latter especially will be flying high having made their own bit of history becoming the first Lebanese team to win a continental competition and they have shown their ability to compete at a high level throughout their campaign not just from a technical standpoint but also from a tactical standpoint, and Ciobotariu may want to use that to his advantage.
South Korea come into this game on the back of a good run of results which include wins against Colombia and Australia following what was a disappointing Asian Cup campaign. They beat Turkeminstan 2-0 away in their opening qualifiers before thrashing Sri Lanka 8-0 and then being held to a 0-0 draw by neighbours North Korea in Pyongyang. The fact they are yet to concede a goal in qualifying is proof that Lebanon will find it difficult to score. And everyone knows they currently hold the best player in Asian in Son Heung-min, who seems to be continuously improving. He is the team’s talisman but South Korea have a lot of attacking talent at their disposal and Lebanon will have to be completely focused throughout the game. But unlike South Korean teams of the past, the current one has shown an overreliance on Son at times which has affected the Koreans’ effectiveness going forward.
One thing that is for sure is that South Korea still remember the defeat from 2011 and are very aware of the dangers that Lebanon pose. On the other hand, a number of players from the current Lebanese squad had taken part in that famous win and will be confident in their ability to replicate that achievement. In fact, Lebanon have a decent recent record against the Taegeuk Warriors and have shown on multiple occasions their ability to compete and make it difficult for South Korea and this will give them great belief. And hopefully, the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium will be conquered by the beautiful spirit and unity that has taken over the streets all around the country over the past three weeks so that the National Team can be pushed to victory by their supporters. People are writing history in the streets of Lebanon; it’s now time for the National Team to do the same on the pitch.
first photo by Rami Rizk