Some important lessons and a positive outlook for Lebanon despite heartbreak

Picture taken from the Lebanese Football Association

Thursday’s game against Iran was one hell of an emotional rollercoaster for Lebanese fans as the Cedars led for almost the entire game before falling apart in stoppage time and losing the game 2-1. Despite the supporters ban imposed by FIFA supposedly for “security reasons” in what was Lebanon’s first home game of this stage of World Cup Qualifying, the game was played with intensity and the tension was palpable as Lebanon came agonisingly close to a historic result that would have placed them in a very favourable position in the overall context of the group.

A painful loss

As arguably the best team in Asia, even without their star forward Mehdi Taremi, Iran (22nd in FIFA rankings) went into this game as heavy favourites against a Lebanon (92nd in FIFA rankings) team that came into this Third Round as the big underdogs in the group. However, the Cedars have performed remarkably well under new head coach Ivan Hasek, finding themselves in third place ahead of Thursday’s match after having played all four of their games away from home, and there was a sense of belief within the camp that a positive result was within their reach.

This would have had to be done without the contributions of two of Lebanon’s key players, namely captain and record goalscorer Hassan Maatouk and FC Tokyo central defender Joan Oumari. These two absences forced Ivan Hasek into a slight shift in terms of the lineup, with Felix Melki dropping into central defence to partner his brother Alex in a backline that also saw the return of Kassem Zein from suspension at left-back, while emerging stars Abbas Assi and Mostafa Matar kept their much-deserved starting berths at right-back and goalkeeper respectively. Lebanon seemed to line up in a 4-4-2 with Soony Saad moving up into the left midfield position vacated by Maatouk with captain Mohamad Haidar on the opposite side and Mohammad Ali Dhaini partnering up with Nader Matar in central midfield. Bassel Jradi played a role in between that of a central midfielder – when out of possession – and that of a second striker whenever the chance to attack came about. 24 year old Mohamad Kdouh led the line.

The pitch at Saida Stadium was dry and bobbly but that didn’t stop Iran from starting the game strong and on the front foot. Although Lebanon held their ground and avoided conceding any clear cut chances, there were a few close calls from very early on in the game as promising-looking shots were blocked by determined Lebanese bodies. This was a clear feature of Lebanon’s performance as every single player went hard into duels and made sure to put as many obstacles as possible in between Iran’s top quality forward line and Mostafa Matar’s goal in a clear commitment to defensive solidity, also evidence of the confidence within the camp. In fact, Lebanon looked less open than in previous games even though Kassem Zein seemed to be exposed a few times down the left hand side. But the away side’s strong start didn’t last and Lebanon started to grow into the game as Iran’s rhythm slowed, Matar having only had one save to make in the first half, a comfortable parry from a long-rage effort by Feyenoord’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh. There were a few promising openings for Lebanon to counter but sloppy passing and poor decision making meant that it wasn’t until the 37th minute that Lebanon had their first real attack. A one-two between Abbas Assi and Mohamad Haidar on the right hand side allowed Lebanon to commit a few players forward before Assi swung in a high cross from deep. The ball seemed to be headed out of play but the windy conditions on the Lebanese coast played in the home side’s favour as the ball dipped back in and dropped for Soony Saad who was the only player from either team to have stayed alert. The in-form Saad brought it down with a brilliant first touch before showing the composure to drop Iranian goalkeeper Beiranvand with a dummy and slot the ball into the roof of the net, to the shock of everyone watching on. It was the classic sucker punch with the hosts scoring with their very first shot on goal. Iran failed to show much in the way of a response and Lebanon went in at half-time leading by a goal to nil.

An injury to Abbas Assi meant that Ivan Hasek was forced into making a half-time switch, bringing on Hussein Zein in his place after the Ahed defender had initially lost his place in the team because of an injury. The start of the second period looked promising for the home side. Even though Iran remained the dominant team, two yellow cards in the first few minutes of the second half were beginning to show signs of frustration from the Iranian players. There then was a golden opportunity for Lebanon to double their lead when goalkeeper Beiranvand was caught in possession by the onrushing Bassel Jradi. The lose ball fell to Mohamad Haidar on the edge of the penalty area who had a weak shot deflected out for a corner by an Iranian defender. This missed chance by Lebanon gave the Iranians a much-needed wake up call and this is when the game started to shift in the away side’s favour. Up until then Lebanon had been fairly comfortable and had restricted Iran exclusively to half chances. However Iran head coach Dragan Skocic started to make some changes and Iran began putting more crosses into the box, increasing the pressure on Lebanon’s defence. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Sardar Azmoun had been quiet up until the 65th min when a cross from the right side found him on the penalty spot and he hit a powerful shot on the half-volley only to be denied by a spectacular save from Mostafa Matar. This was the first time Matar had been really troubled and the momentum was now in Team Melli’s favour. Lebanon were dropping deeper and deeper but still Iran were not finding too many gaps from which to threaten the goal. Then with 15 minutes to go, Ivan Hasek made a substitution which would prove to be costly for Lebanon, bringing on out-of-form striker Hilal Al Helwe for captain Mohamad Haidar who was doing a typically good job of winning free-kicks and buying time for his side. Then it was the turn of Hussein El Dor to come on for only his second cap, replacing the goalscorer as Hasek shifted to a back five for the closing stages of the match. It was in the 91st minute that Iran finally had a breakthrough, when Helwe gave the ball away cheaply, allowing Iran to pounce before a through ball was diverted by Felix Melki into the path of Azmoun who toe-poked the ball past Matar. Lebanon were starting to show signs of mental fatigue and it is in these types of situations that home support would have been greatly helpful, as the players needed help to get through the last couple of minutes. Alas, they didn’t get it and Iran found a winning goal in the last minute of stoppage time in what is becoming a familiar pattern of Lebanon squandering leads and going on to lose in the final stages of a game. The second goal came from a cut back after Azmoun’s first effort was blocked which allowed Nourollahi to find the bottom corner from the edge of the box, beating a blindsided Matar in the Lebanese goal and leaving the Lebanese heartbroken and the Iranians just escaping embarrassment.

Some important lessons

May be an image of 3 people, people playing sport, people standing and outdoors
Photo taken from the Lebanese Football Association

Once again, Lebanon proved unable to hold onto a lead and collapsed in the final stages of a game to lose, something we saw as recently as June against Turkmenistan. There is clearly work needed to be done in this area for Ivan Hasek. This Lebanon side will need to learn to overcome the mental fatigue that comes from trying to hold onto a positive result and get over the line. Even in the win against Syria, where Lebanon were comfortable for most of the second half, lack of concentration almost allowed Syria to draw level in the last seconds of the match. But after all, it is for these kinds of lessons that we are in this advanced stage of Qualifying. Indeed, you do not learn these lessons from playing the likes of North Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The only way for Lebanon to improve in this regard is to learn how costly a lapse in concentration can be at this level, and our players will get better as they get used to this level.

However, this is not the only lesson to take from this defeat. Costly errors were made by head coach Ivan Hasek in terms of his substitutions. Lebanese supporters continue to be baffled by his reluctance to bring on Rabih Ataya, who has proved time and time again to be a huge asset for the Cedars and who could have played a very important role in helping us hold on to the win by winning free-kicks and consequently winding the clock down, something not many players in Asia best him at. But Ataya would have also provided a threat for Lebanon on the counter and allowed us to move up the pitch every now and again, thus giving the defenders some much-needed respite in between Iranian attacks. In fact, Ahed striker Helwe was probably brought on for similar reasons; the idea was seemingly to have a more physically imposing player lead the line so that he could hold the ball up. There was nothing wrong with the logic behind that change. But Helwe has struggled in similar cameo roles during this Qualifying round while Omar Bugiel, who contrarily to Helwe is in good club form in the English League 2 with Sutton United, showed great promise as a target man in the opening two games against the UAE and South Korea. Bugiel’s total omission from all subsequent qualifiers has been very odd considering how well he did in those first two games and Hasek’s recent preference for Helwe to fulfill this role is hard to understand. On Thursday, Helwe failed to repay his manager’s faith as he put in a sluggish and lacklustre performance where he lost the ball repeatedly and failed to show the same amount of effort as his teammates.

Another player who seems to be struggling for form is Felix Melki. While he did an able job filling in for Oumari, he was also partly at fault for the first goal and seems to be a shadow of the player who had made himself a fan’s favourite at the 2019 Asian Cup. On Thursday, he won only 1 of his 4 duels; a disappointing return for one of the most physically imposing players on the Asian continent. I think it would be fair to question whether he should continue deputising for Oumari against the UAE or whether it may be better to have Hussein El Dor come in or Kassem Zein move back into his favoured central defensive position with Maher Sabra coming in at left-back.

Meanwhile, from a tactical perspective there are a couple of aspects Lebanon should work on in order to become a better side. It has become obvious that Lebanon’s defensive strength comes from the physicality and determination of their defenders, epitomised by Alex Melki who has grown into a pivotal figure for the Cedars under Hasek. Indeed, the Qatar-based defender won 100% of his duels on Thursday while also making 9 clearances and 3 blocks. And while Lebanon have kept two clean sheets from their first five games, they still lack the necessary defensive compactness to succeed with this style of play, as was evidenced by the number of times Iran were able to go through using the underlapping run in between full-back and centre-back, particularly on Lebanon’s right side. This has to be a focus for Ivan Hasek because the more his team force the opposition on the outside and into making crosses, the more that plays into the hands of a backline whether it consists of Alex Melki, Joan Oumari, Kassem Zein, Nour Mansour, Hussein El Dor or others. Becoming a more well-organised defence will allow us to be less reliant on Mostafa Matar’s continued exploits in goal and therefore leave us more secure and confident, and thus less vulnerable to the costly lapses in concentration that cost us so dearly on Thursday.

There is arguably even more improvement to be made when it comes to our game in attacking transitions and in possession. During the game on Thursday, there were more signs of our inefficiency on the counter attack, with numerous opportunities to go forward breaking down because of sloppy passing. With players like Nader Matar, Jradi and Kdouh – the latter two showed signs of a promising relationship starting to emerge – Lebanon has the potential to be a good counter-attacking team but work on patterns is desperately needed on the training ground in order for more of these openings to turn into meaningful chances. Patterns will help players know where to position themselves and where to play their passes during attacking transitions, allowing us to move forward faster and leaving less us vulnerable to sloppy play. It is equally important for us to work on our final ball and finishing. Mohamad Haidar was gifted with a chance early in the second half, one he should have converted either through a more composed and ruthless finish or by playing the ball to Jradi who was open on his right and probably had more time. It is imperative for us to become a more efficient team by improving our finishing and by making better decisions in the final third. Another thing that is very important in this area is for us to take more shots. Mohamad Kdouh has proved what a ruthless finisher he can be and we know that players such as Jradi, Nader Matar and Soony Saad have a goal in them from medium or long range. We need to take more advantage of that.

A positive outlook

Otherwise, Abbas Assi demonstrated the value he adds through his composure and quality on the ball, losing possession only once, having a passing accuracy of 80% and getting one assist and one key pass in 45 mins. The midfield partnership of Mohammad Ali Dhaini and Nader Matar looked strong for the first time as the former seems to be growing into an important player for the National Team whereas the latter put in one of the best performances I have seen from him in a while in a National Team shirt. Indeed it had been a while that I felt Matar was not showing he still deserved to start and I questioned Hasek’s insistence to stick with him but in the game on Thursday he was terrific from the way he covered ground to his commitment in his defensive actions and hopefully this is a sign of better things to come. Mohamad Haidar did what he does best: getting on the ball, winning free-kicks and leading by example in terms of fighting spirit. Kdouh is starting to have an increasing presence leading the line and looked good when combining with Jradi and when making runs in behind for the Apollon Limassol player to find him. But the two real star performers throughout the Third Round of qualifying have been Soony Saad and Bassel Jradi and they only got better last time out. After showing no more than glimpses of his true potential during years of playing for the National Team, Saad seems to have found a new lease of life in recent months, scoring 4 goals in his last 7 games (more than any of his teammates). In addition to his well-taken goal on Thursday, he had a 78% passing accuracy, won 8 out of 16 duels and made 8 defensive interventions, proving why Hasek has occasionally fielded him at left-back and why he may continue to do so. Meanwhile, Bassel Jradi has really come into his own as an international player after an erratic first 18 months. Jradi is very clearly now the star player of the team and his great start to life in Cyprus should only benefit the Cedars.

Finally, Lebanon’s performance against Iran, albeit it ended with defeat, showed that the Cedars can make Saida a fortress. The difficult playing surface means that it will be harder for teams that play a possession-based game such as South Korea and the UAE and in the case of the latter especially, Lebanon can use a direct style of play where they take advantage of their better physicality and the windy conditions in order to put real pressure on their opponents. Meanwhile, the playing surface will also make it harder for teams to break us down as they will struggle to combine and play quick passes in and around the box, forcing them to rely more on crosses which as mentioned earlier is a strength of Lebanon’s.

This definitely has to be the approach when we face the UAE on Tuesday. The UAE will be weakened by several absences through injury and the conditions do not suit their style of play at all. Additionally, they are going into this game under immense pressure after a poor start and anything other than a win could very well be the end of their chances at qualifying at least as third. There is no need for Lebanon to play an overly defensive game; the key will be to put the UAE under pressure by relying on a more direct style of play and using the height and physicality advantage we have over the Emiratis. I think it is also fair to say that Lebanese supporters will be desperate to see more of their maestro Rabih Ataya who has caused problems for every team he has faced. There is also a role for the likes of Omar Bugiel, Walid Shour and Maher Sabra to play in this upcoming game, and I would like to repeat my strong belief that Hady Ghandour can be a wildcard to bring off the bench, potentially alongside Omar Bugiel with the latter being the target man and the former running around and making a nuisance of himself and stretching the backline, Calvert-Lewin-esque.

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Photo taken from the Lebanese Football Association

Ultimately Ivan Hasek’s most important job will be to make sure the squad morale is not too affected by this defeat and that this team go into the UAE game with complete confidence that they can come away with all three points. Lebanon is still third as things stand and remains in the driving seat in the race for that playoff spot. The next game could prove to be our most important one and we have all the tools at our disposal to take this opportunity.

Player Ratings: M.Matar (7); Assi (6), A.Melki (7), F.Melki (5), K.Zein (5); Haidar (6), Dhaini (6), N.Matar (6), Soony Saad (8); Jradi (8), Kdouh (6); H.Zein (6), Helwe (4), El Dor (5), Shour (N/A).

My lineup for the upcoming game (4-5-1): M.Matar; Assi/H.Zein, A.Melki, K.Zein, M.Sabra; R.Ataya, B.Jradi, Dhaini, N.Matar, Saad; M.Kdouh.

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