It has already been 10 months since Lebanon’s qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup was confirmed and on Thursday, preparations for the tournament began with a 1-0 victory against Jordan in their own backyard. It was a very good result which extends the Cedars’ unbeaten run to 15 matches dating back to March 2016. This is the second longest run currently standing in international football after Spain. But as the match was a friendly, it was a lot less the result and a lot more the performance and system of play that were under the microscope as Radulovic’s side played for the first time in 5 months.
It was always going to be a difficult match for both sides. First of all, the league seasons of both countries have not yet started. Second of all, the Lebanese players haven’t met up since March. There was a rustiness that was there for all to see, with a lot of misplaced passes and bad touches on display from both teams. But it was nonetheless an encouraging performance from the away side, who prepare for their first major tournament in 19 years. Radulovic set his side up in a 5-2-3 formation with the game plan being to sit deep, close the spaces to stop Jordan from creating any meaningful opportunities, and then causing them problems either through set-pieces or quick Maatouk-led counter-attacks. It was a game plan that we had started to become accustomed to in the last few games of qualifying, replacing the more possession-based 4-3-3 that was used in the first few matches.
It was a game plan that worked relatively well. Jordan hardly created anything of note. The only time they found a way through the well-organised backline ended with the Jordan player being forced out of play by Haitham Faour. This being despite the big gap that existed between Lebanon’s back-five and midfield 4, as Faour and Matar were instructed to press high instead of sitting in front of the defence. This led Jordan to play numerous passes through the lines to their attacking players who were enjoying loads of space in the pocket between defence and midfield. However, Lebanon’s three centre-backs – Kassem El Zein, Nour Mansour and Joan Oumari – dealt with this problem brilliantly, stepping forward to put Jordan’s players under immediate pressure and not allowing them to turn on the ball and face the goal. Oumari, who recently joined Sagan Tosu in the J-League and who has experience playing in Germany, Turkey and the UAE, particularly impressed, building on from his good recent club form as he demonstrated great intelligence and experience in his defending. Personally, I was not too sure how a player like him, who is not particularly mobile, would fit in on the left of a back-three but his reading of the game was more than good enough to replace pace and power and he proved his position as the leader of the Lebanese defence. I am a big fan of Nour Mansour and the Ahed defender was at his usual best, displaying his solid tackling and intercepting as well as his good ball-playing ability, one of the reasons why he was chosen to play in the middle of the back-three. And Kassem El Zein was rewarded for his fine form for Nejmeh by being placed in the starting 11 in place of Jounaidi, and he repayed his manager’s faith by putting in a very good performance and slotting in seamlessly into a position that he has only begun playing recently. At right wing-back, Ali Hamam was equally solid but didn’t venture forward too much, clearly an instruction given to both wing-backs. However, while the Nejmeh captain looked comfortable in his position and is almost a certainty to start versus Qatar in the first game of the Asian Cup, left wing-back remains a problem position for Radulovic. Walid Ismail, who started there today, didn’t look comfortable in a position he is not used to and showed a defensive vulnerability that will have Radulovic very worried. Between him, Nassar Nassar and the currently injured Maher Sabra, there is no obvious choice to play at the moment and the player who in my opinion would be the best man for the job, Hussein Dakik, is unavailable to play because of his involvement in the 2011 match-fixing scandal.
The midfield pairing of Haitham Faour and Nader Matar was not too convincing either, although that was probably partly due to them being outnumbered in the middle of the park and having to do a lot of chasing because of their high starting positions and the gap that left behind them. Faour struggled due to his lack of mobility but still managed to show the quality he possesses on the ball. Meanwhile, I have never been a fan of Nader Matar’s work off the ball, whether that be in his tactical discipline or simply his work-rate, and for all the qualities he possesses on the ball and his contribution to Lebanon’s threat on the break, he will need to improve in those aforementioned aspects if he wants to guarantee a place in the starting eleven against Qatar. Indeed, the 5-2-3 seems to be the system that Radulovic will go for during the tournament and given the quality of the sides Lebanon will face in the UAE, Radulovic cannot afford to allow similar gaps to appear in midfield against the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I am sure that he will not hesitate to call upon Adnan Haidar, who replaced Matar late on on Thursday, Bilal Najdi or maybe look towards someone like Ahmad Jalloul or Samir Ayass who couldn’t make the squad this time around, if Matar fails to deliver.
Meanwhile Lebanon’s biggest threat in the first half came from set-pieces. Mohamad Haidar, who came in for Rabih Ataya, put in some fantastic deliveries into the box for the likes of Oumari and Mansour to attack as the Jordanians could not deal with Lebanon’s power and determination to get on the end of those crosses. Omar Chafih in Jordan’s goal looked particularly uncomfortable as he spilled several balls, causing chaos in the box. There were also a few opportunities on the counter-attack led by talisman Hassan Maatouk who was a constant thorn in Jordan’s side as his dribbling ability and pace gave the opposition defence all sorts of problems. However, Apollon Smyrnis forward Hilal al Helwe struggled to get into the game and was well marshalled by the Jordanian centre-backs. Lebanon’s lack of clear-cut opportunities meant that midway through the second half, Radulovic brought on Ataya for Haidar and Bromley striker Omar Bugiel for Al Helwe for only his second cap and those changes had the desired impact. With under 15 minutes to go, Maatouk went on a brilliant run in which he dribbled past several defenders. This run cut open the Jordanian defence and as Maatouk got to the edge of the box, he laid it off to Ataya. The latter fainted to shoot only to play the ball into the path of Bugiel. The Bromley striker took a touch and then slotted it home underneath the Jordanian goalkeeper. It was a special moment for the striker born in Germany and, in a position that is still very much up for grabs, Bugiel did his chances no harm. His overall cameo was very positive as he showed nice touches, especially when he skipped past two players to win a free-kick just as Jordan were starting to apply some pressure. That pressure only manifested itself in two decent long-range shots that were parried well out of danger by Mehdi Khalil, who had nothing to do up until this point. Jordan created nothing further as Lebanon countered their pressure with some possession and attacking of their own, Hassan Chaito Moni almost scoring with his first touch after coming off the bench only to be denied by a good save.
All in all, it was a relatively comfortable victory for Lebanon, showing how far they have come under Miodrag Radulovic, and there were many positives to take. There also many lessons that Radulovic would have learned and for all the positivity, I can’t help but think that a better team than Jordan may have exploited the space better and caused Lebanon more problems. There is therefore a long way to go before Lebanon is ready to take on Asia’s elite in the UAE in 4 months time. On the subject of tactics, the 5-2-3 seems well-suited to this team as it provides it with a good stability and numbers in defence, which will be crucial when facing the better teams, all the while getting the best out of Maatouk by bringing him further infield and giving him the space to use his creativity and dribbling skills on the counter-attack, reminding me of what Antonio Conte did with Eden Hazard in Chelsea’s most recent title triumph. I would just hope that the midfield pairing would keep from pressing high and sit in front of the centre-backs. Another thing I hope to see in the upcoming friendlies is support from the wing-backs, whose width can allow the attacking midfielders to play closer together and link up along with the striker, something we did not see enough of during this match. But overall Radulovic seems to have a pretty clear mind about what system he will use, which can only be a good thing, and with players from abroad being brought in to supplement the team like striker Jeronimo Amione from Mexico and possibly defenders Alexander and Felix Michel from Sweden, there is a lot to look forward to for Lebanese fans.