Today sees Lebanon kick off their Fifa Arab Cup 2021 campaign against none other than the great Pharaon. Egypt will arguably be the Cedars’ toughest test of the tournament and all eyes will be on the two sides as they both cope with key absences. Indeed, because of the fact that this tournament, which is being played as a warmup to next year’s first ever World Cup on Arab soil, is not occurring during an official international break, many of the players based outside of the Arab world were unable to attend. Nonetheless, this should be an exciting encounter in front of a large crowd of expatriate Lebanese supporters – 7 thousand are expected to attend today’s game against Egypt – who will passionately cheer on their team.
Yesterday saw the competition kick off in style, beginning with a beautiful opening ceremony celebrating Arab culture, with a hologram of Fairuz singing “Sanirjaou Yawman (We will return one day)” surely being one of the highlights along with the lovely medley of Arab National Anthems, the Lebanese one being greeted by cheers and applauds inside the Al Beyt Stadium. Hosts Qatar kicked off with a 1-0 win against Bahrain while their fellow teams in the group, Iraq and Oman, played out a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile in Group B Tunisia are in the driving seat following their 5-1 thrashing of Mauritania as the UAE beat Syria 2-1.
Lebanon enters this game off the back of some very impressive performances in World Cup Qualifying where they have reached the Third Round for only the second time in their history and have competed competently so far. Egypt have also been in good form since the appointment of the former Real Madrid and Portuguese National Team coach Carlos Queiroz, who will surely have memories of facing Lebanon in Beirut over nine years ago when his Iran side were surprisingly beaten 1-0 thanks in no small part to the heroics of Lebanese goalkeeper Abbas Hassan.
This Arab Cup campaign will serve as an excellent test for both teams and both sides are looking to use this competition as preparation for upcoming challenges. Lebanon still have four qualifying matches to go, three of which are at home, as they look to achieve a historic first ever World Cup qualification. Meanwhile, Egypt have the African Cup of Nations coming up in January and many of their fringe players will be hoping to prove themselves worthy of a ticket on the plane to Cameroon.
Important absences and new faces for the Cedars
Lebanon will be competing in this tournament without several key figures. Bassel Jradi and Soony Saad, two players who have become the star men for the Cedars under Czech coach Ivan Hasek, are both missing from the squad. Similarly, Lebanon will have to make do without Tokyo FC centre-back Joan Oumari as well England-based duo Omar Bugiel and Hady Ghandour. Number one goalkeeper Mahdi Khalil, talisman Hassan Maatouk and star centre-forward Mohamad Kdouh are all missing through injury, as is backup keeper Ali Daher, who had to pull out at the last minute.
This means a first call-up for Ansar holding midfielder Jihad Ayoub whose impressive form for club during the last couple of seasons had led many to call for his selection over the last few months. There are also several promotions from the u-23 side: Salam Zgharta goalkeeper Antoine Douaihy, Nejmeh star midfielder Mahdi Zein, Shabab Al Bourj central midfielder Hussein Awada and Ahed winger Zein Farran, the latter having impressed in recent games for the U-23s.
There is also a long-awaited return for the experienced Ahed centre-back Nour Mansour who has missed the last few squads because of injury.
Preparations for rest of WCQ
While many Lebanese fans will hope to see their team challenge during this competition, it is clear that the priority for the players and coaching staff remains the World Cup Qualifying campaign, where Lebanon are still very much within reach of a historic playoff place. Therefore, Ivan Hasek (pictured) will use these next few games against very good opposition to finetune his side ahead of the home game against South Korea at the end of January.
Indeed, even though Lebanon have done way better than anyone had expected of them in their qualifying group, there is still a lot they can improve on and we will hopefully see the Cedars working on that here in Qatar. One thing that has cost Lebanon time and time again is mental stamina, or the lack of it. Lebanon under Hasek are a very well-organised unit and a tough team to beat but towards the end of the games as the players – many of whom play in the semi-professional domestic league – start to tire, cracks start to appear and chances are conceded, as we saw in the recent defeat to Iran when both goals were conceded in stoppage time. The best way to work on that is to continue testing the players against good opposition and this competition will do just that with difficult games against Algeria and Sudan following today’s match. It will also be a really good experience for Lebanon’s players to play against opponents from a different continent and be exposed to different styles of play, something they rarely get to do, with Lebanon having only played two non-Asian teams (Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea) in the last six years.
In addition to some much-needed tactical finetuning, one of Hasek’s major tasks is to find a way to get more goals out of this team. Goals have been a serious problem for Lebanon since the days of Radulovic and no coach has yet been able to find a solution. In Lebanon’s last game, a highly controversial1-0 defeat to the UAE, it was in large part their inability to convert total dominance into goals that ended up costing them. And with Saad, Maatouk and Kdouh all missing, scoring goals will be even more of a challenge.
Players to watch
We have already spoken about the players that will be missing for the Cedars but there are also some very talented players that will feature in Qatar. 26 year-old goalkeeper Mostafa Matar, who has been deputising for fellow Ahed keeper Mahdi Khalil, has been performing remarkably in the qualifiers and it seems only a matter of time before the big offers start coming in. Qatar-based central defender Alex Melki has become the key figure at the back under Hasek while Abbas Assi has done a solid job of filling in at right-back considering he usually plays central midfield. Kassem Zein and Nour Mansour are both very experienced presences in central defence, with Zein being an expert tackler and Mansour being a top ball-playing centre-half. There may also be an opportunity for Nejmeh’s Maher Sabra to prove himself a worthy option at left-back, a position where Lebanon has struggled in recent years. Meanwhile there are many supporters out there will be hoping that Ansar centre-back Hussein El Dor will get more of an opportunity, having been one of the best players in the domestic league in recent years and also did really well in Southeast Asia.
A key area for Lebanon will be the midfield and Jradi’s absence will not help in that regard but everyone else is present, as are some additional faces, and Hasek may very well rotate a bit to try and find the best formula. Mohammad Ali Dhaini has quickly become an essential figure for the team as a defensive midfielder, while the other Qatar-based player in the squad Nader Matar has recently looked back to his best and his goalscoring ability may very well be needed throughout this competition. Felix Melki has not been in the best form of recent but his physicality and aerial strength can be a huge asset when used properly. Mohamed Haidar will captain the side in Maatouk’s absence and the number ten will be at the centre of Lebanon’s play in possession, looking to open up opposition defences with his vision and wand of a left foot.
Lebanese fans will be hoping however that he doesn’t have to drop so deep as he has done in recent games and maybe Jihad Ayoub or Walid Shour can help with that. Indeed, ever since the international retirement of Haytham Faour after the 2019 Asian Cup, Lebanon has lacked a holding midfielder capable to taking hold of the ball and dictating play, something which has caused the likes of Haidar, Maatouk and others to drop very deep in order to take that into their own hands. But this squad has two of this type of player in Shour and Ayoub and if one of them can prove capable of translating their club form onto the international stage and at such a high level too, the hope is that this will let Haidar and his fellow attacking midfielders look to affect the game from higher up the pitch which may in turn help Lebanon be more effective in the final third. And while it is unlikely that either of them get too many opportunities to play, Zein and Awada are big talents who provide something a little different, with the former having proven to be prolific joining in attacks from deep while the latter is your classic box-to-box midfielder.
Surely the biggest question mark for Lebanon going into this tournament is in attack with most of the Cedars’ absences coming in this area of the field. The main contributors of goals will be missing leaving big responsibility on the shoulders of Rabih Ataya and Hilal Al Helwe. Ataya (pictured) is arguably Lebanon’s most talented player and has been incredible in World Cup Qualifying whenever he’s played, although most of his appearances have come off the bench, with Hasek preferring to play him as an impact sub. He did start the last game against the UAE however and with Maatouk, Saad, Jradi and Kdouh all unavailable there is no doubt he will have a much bigger role to play at this tournament, a responsibility which he should thrive off. The Malaysia-based player has been linked recently with moves to the UAE and Thailand and Arab fans should be looking forward to seeing one of the best dribblers in Asian football and definitely one of the most exciting players at this tournament. The Lebanese answer to Riyad Mahrez will most certainly be the most important player for the Cedars and in addition to his skillful dribbling it is his proficiency in front of goal that Hasek will be relying on.
On the other hand, Helwe has lost his starting spot in the team amidst a run of poor form and this could be his last chance to prove himself in the absence of the rest of Hasek’s striking options. There will probably be an opportunity for Shabab Sahel striker Fadel Antar who has come out of nowhere to be one of the stories of the season, scoring seven goals in two games earlier in the season. He is yet to make his international debut but will be hoping to make himself a hero for the Cedars in Qatar. Farran is a talented dribbler who also has an aptitude for crossing and chipping in with the odd goal, not unlike Ataya, and should get a chance given the dearth of attacking options at Hasek’s disposal.
Ultimately, it will be fascinating to see how Lebanon performs in this competition in the absence of such important figures. A lot of the responsibility will rest on the experience of Zein, Mansour, Matar, Haidar and Ataya to help the other players shine, but there is a nice blend of youth and experience in this squad as well as a core of players who are coming close to their peak. Despite an extremely disappointing last international break for Lebanon where two successive heartbreaks somewhat damaged Lebanon’s chances of finishing third in their group, morale in the squad is very high and Lebanese fans will be very optimistic of their team’s chances at causing one or two upsets against the much-fancied but much-changed Egyptian and Algerian sides. A very large and passionate crowd of supporters will definitely help. Yalla Lebnen!