Lebanon made a big statement on Thursday when they held South Korea to a 0-0 draw in Beirut despite playing the game in an empty stadium. The Cedars managed to stop high-quality players such as Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min and Bordeaux’s Hwang Ui-Jo all while threatening to score themselves in what was an exemplary performance by the players and a tactical masterclass from head coach Liviu Ciobotariu. This now puts Lebanon in a good position to qualify for the Third Round of Qualification, an achievement which would also send Lebanon automatically to the 2023 Asian Cup.
This game was always going to be a massive test for Liviu Ciobotariu, most certainly his toughest yet, on account of the quality of the opposition with South Korea clearly being one of the top teams on the continent. South Korea have qualified for every single World Cup since 1986, reaching the semi-finals in 2002, and have won two Asian Cups. But the conditions the Lebanese team entered the game in made the game even more difficult. Indeed, due to the political situation in the country and the ongoing protests, the domestic league has been suspended for over a month and the Security Forces decided to have the game played behind closed doors. In spite of all of this, the Romanian head coach and his players came through with a performance to be proud of and a very valuable point.
Liviu Ciobotariu decided to stick to the 4-2-3-1 system we have been accustomed to in recent games, naming an attacking lineup to the surprise of many who have gotten used to seeing Lebanon take conservative defensive-minded approaches against big teams in the past. Mahdi Khalil, who comes off the back of having won the MVP award for the AFC Cup started in goal behind a back four consisting of Alex Melki at right-back, Nour Mansour and the returning Joan Oumari at centre-back, and Shibriko at left-back. Ciobotariu named in front of them two holding midfielders charged with the protection of the back four in Felix Melki and Adnan Haidar. The starting eleven than had four attacking midfielders in Rabih Ataya, Mohamad Haidar, Hassan Maatouk and Bassel Jradi, with the latter taking on the role of the false-nine with regular striker Hilal Al Helwe not being fit enough to start.
Lebanon started strong, taking the game to their opponents and showing an admirable attacking intent. South Korea also made a strong start the game, leading to actions at both ends in the opening stages of the match. South Korea were focusing their attacks down the sides and particularly with the full-backs on the overlap and they got in dangerous positions early on with the Lebanese defence showing a good ability to defend the crosses that were being delivered. Meanwhile at the other end, the four attacking midfielders were enjoying a certain amount of freedom and were combining to try and create some opportunities, with the game’s first shot on target coming from a sweetly hit dipping long shot by Rabih Ataya which was comfortably parried away by the Korean goalkeeper. South Korea continued to pose a threat down the sides as they looked to stretch a purposely narrow Lebanese backline, but the latter were dominant in the box with the help of the midfielders and Khalil was still waiting for a real save to make. However, although South Korea were dominating the game in terms of possession, Lebanon had their fair share of the ball and were committing loads of men forward, with Ataya the brightest spot as his dribbling ability and composure saw him dazzle the South Korean defenders. Lebanon had a couple of set-piece opportunities but they failed to take advantage of them.
Just past the half-hour mark, Khalil was called into action for the first time as Son skipped past Melki and hit what was between a cross and a shot which Khalil tipped over the bar. A minute later, Hwang Ui-Jo was played through on goal after the Lebanese defenders misread a long ball but he could only hit it straight at Khalil, who stood strong. South Korea were growing in strength as we approached half-time but Lebanon’s defence was up to the challenge and it was Lebanon who had the last chance of the half as Maatouk whipped in what was a very dangerous free-kick in towards the far post but no one managed to get a head on it.
The second half started in a similar fashion to the first as both teams went for it in search of a goal. The Taeguk Warriors had the first chance of the second period as a counter-attack resulted in a really good chance to score but Khalil’s fantastic double-save denied them. Meanwhile, Lebanon were also getting better openings with both Haidar and Maatouk having good shooting opportunities. Ataya had another decent long effort saved by the keeper with the movement of the ball threatening to wrongfoot Kim Seung-Gyu. South Korea tried to change tactics in the hope that they would find a way through the Lebanese defence but that didn’t work. Lebanon were working extremely hard to make sure that no mistakes that the South Koreans could take advantage of were made. As the game reached the last twenty minutes, South Korean pressure began to increase as Lebanon started to show signs of fatigue, something that was inevitable. The Koreans even hit the post and had a couple of half-hearted penalty claims. Nonetheless Lebanon, despite being clearly tired, were still creating chances on the counter-attack with the best chance coming from a great combination between Jradi and Helwe, who came on for Ataya, although Jradi couldn’t quite find the finishing touch, with the game ending goalless.
Any Lebanese fan would have taken a draw before the game but the manner of the draw was especially enjoyable from a Lebanese point of view even if no goals were scored. There was a clear improvement in terms of defensive organisation compared to recent matches and Ciobotariu’s game plan was clear and brilliantly executed by the players who showed fantastic levels of concentration throughout the match. Ciobotariu set up with a narrow defensive block, encouraging South Korea to play on the wings, which is exactly what happened especially in the first half. Hence why the Koreans had numerous crosses, although they weren’t very successful as Mansour and Oumari were commanding in the air with the help of Felix Melki. The latter played a massive role in this game alongside his midfield partner Adnan Haidar. Their job was to block the middle and cover the full-backs to help them deal with the talented wingers. They also played a key role in limiting South Korea’s long shot opportunities. Meanwhile, the full-backs not only won their duals with their respective opponents, with Alex Melki putting in a particularly impressive performance in stopping one of the world’s best players in Son Heung-Min and a recent Champions League runner-up. Towards the end of the game, Liviu put Felix Melki in defence alongside the centre-backs and brought on Kassem Zein in order to sure things up further, but throughout the game he managed to find a very good balance between defensive solidity all the while committing men forward and looking for the victory.
Indeed, Lebanon played quite an offensive game and often attacked with up to 5 or 6 players with Felix Melki especially joining the attacks from deep. Haidar and Ataya both put in confident performances and were just lacking the ruthlessness at the end. Maatouk was not at his best but still had a big contribution to the attack and Jradi showed his capacity to play the false-nine role well as he held the ball up, linked up with the other attacking players and made runs in-behind to try and stretch the defence. We saw that Lebanon were especially dangerous when the attacking midfielders were close together and combining to create an overload on a particular side. However there was a lack of quality and ruthlessness in the final third as it seems Liviu is yet to find a solution to the team’s goalscoring issue. But overall it was still a fantastic performance from the Romanian coach who definitely outdid his Portuguese counterpart Bento, who misread the game from the start to the end and showed an inability to react in an effective manner to Ciobotariu’s tactics.
This result puts Lebanon in a good position in the race for a spot in the Third Round and has given the players a lot of confidence, with Kassem Zein and Hassan Maatouk even talking of qualifying for the World Cup. And while that may seem far-fetched for most people, this could very well be a golden opportunity for Lebanon to give it a right go at making Qatar 2022. This result showed that Lebanon were able to compete with one of Asia’s top teams, deal with Asia’s best player and not have to sacrifice an attacking threat without even playing with the backing of their fans. And while there are still numerous weaknesses in the side, not least from the goalscoring aspect, it is important to note that Ciobotariu is still very new and we are sure to see a lot more improvement. Progress has been fast over the last couple of months under the Romanian and he announced a training camp in February ahead of the next international break in March, which is great to hear. Youngsters are coming through such as the likes of Hussein Monzer and Mohamad Kdouh and those two are sure to improve. And with Ahed recently bringing home Lebanon’s first ever continental triumph, confidence is high and all the big-game experience that would have been picked up during this journey just like in all the other continental competitions that Lebanese clubs participate in will surely be beneficial too.
But it’s not just interior factors which give hope for Lebanon. Indeed, the results in the other groups are looking very favourable for several surprises in terms of who will reach the Third Round. Big teams such as China, the UAE, Iran and Uzbekistan all are at risk of missing out, and teams like Jordan, Thailand, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan are in tough groups where all the teams are taking points off each other. This not only means that the points that will get you qualified as one of the best-ranked second-placed teams will not be as high as in the past, but it also means the groups in the Third Round have the potential to be missing a lot of big names, leaving the opportunity for a second-tier team such as Lebanon to potentially come in and take advantage of this, and Syria’s experience last time will also give a lot of hope to those teams.
But for Lebanon, the priority is now on the next two games, as they are both crucial in order to accumulate a good points tally to qualify for the Third Round as a group runner-up. Lebanon will host North Korea in a game where anything other than a win will not be tolerated. In fact, Lebanon will need to return the deficit from the 2-0 defeat in Pyongyang, and the hope is that Helwe’s return, along with a desire for vengeance from the players after their experience in North Korea, will combine to see Lebanon cruise to a comfortable victory. After all, Lebanon beat North Korea 4-1 at the Asian Cup and won 5-0 at home against the same opponents two years ago. Additionally, Lebanon will have several players from Ahed who only recently beat North Korea’s April 25 in the AFC Cup final, with the latter team being represented by 5 players in the national team’s starting eleven from the last game. Unfortunately, once again there will be no fans allowed at the game, but there is no doubt that the motivation and confidence in the camp are high and the players will be determined to get as big a win as possible.
Lebanon vs South Korea player ratings:
Khalil (8); A.Melki (9), Mansour (7), Oumari (8), Shibriko (7); F.Melki (9), A.Haidar (8); Ataya (8), M.Haidar (8), Maatouk (7); Jradi (8)
Subs: Helwe (7), Monzer (6), K.Zein (6)
My starting XI