‘Focus on the future’ Maatouk tells team
‘Focus on the future’ Maatouk tells team
That’s the rallying call from the side’s captain Hassan Maatouk who insisted The Cedars must not fall foul of complacency and keep focused on the ultimate aim: A good run in the 2019 tournament.
There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about for Lebanon over the past few decades, but a slice of history will be in the making when they travel to Hong Kong on Tuesday for their penultimate qualifier.
Their only previous appearance at the tournament came by virtue of being hosts. On that occasion they were bundled out in the group stage after two draws and a loss from their three matches.
Never before have Lebanon qualified for the tournament on merit. Until now.
Sitting five points clear of second-placed North Korea and third-placed Hong Kong, they go into Tuesday’s clash knowing that they have already qualified for the expanded 24-team tournament, set to take place in the UAE in 14 months’ time.
That might tempt some players to take it easy, not least because Lebanon easily beat Hong Kong 2-0 when the sides met in the first qualifier in March.
But Maatouk has warned that while making the Asian Cup was a huge achievement, the real hard work begins now.
“Now we must work harder, we must make good friendly games and good camps to be ready for the Asian Cup,” the 30-year-old told Arab News.
“We don’t want to go to the Asian Cup only to lose, we want to make good results to prove we are a good team. (For) maybe 13 games now we haven’t lost, we have many professional players outside (the country), so we can do good at the Asian Cup.
“It’s not so easy, but we can prove ourselves at the Asian Cup and when you play bigger teams, you play better and we have many quality players, we have players who are confident so we can get good results.”
The winger, who left UAE first division club Al-Fujairah, now coached by Diego Maradona, in the off-season to return home to Lebanon to play for Nejmeh, added that the side was now settled and has all the attributes needed to do well, as well as being excited at having made history for their country.
“It’s the first time for the national team to qualify from the group directly, so all the people they are happy,” the skipper said.
“These last two or three years we worked hard with the new coach (Montenegrin Miodrag Radulovic) and it was not so easy to qualify for the Asian Cup. (But) we are a good group, a good national team, with good players.
“We worked hard and we are now in a good situation. We are happy for this, because we are the team that took Lebanon to the Asian Cup.”
The Cedars’ recent run of good form makes them one of Asia’s most in-form sides, going undefeated in their past 11 matches dating back to March last year.
The most impressive of those performances was a 5-0 hammering of North Korea, traditionally one of the strongest “second-tier” nations in Asia, with Maatouk scoring his 17th goal for his country in the process, taking him just three shy of Lebanese legend Roda Antar, who he replaced as captain in 2016.
“It was one of the best games we played,” Maatouk said of their win over North Korea in Beirut.
“We played good football, and we’ve now played against many teams and proven we are a good team, and not easy to play against. We proved that we are a good team, that we can win, that we have good players.
“All the teams now know that Lebanon has many good players and they are a good team who play with a lot of heart, I think people know that now.”
The added responsibility of the captaincy hasn’t weighed down Maatouk, who has scored three times in four matches in this third round of qualifying.
With his confidence flying high, you wouldn’t back against him adding to that tally against Hong Kong as he looks to be the first captain since Jamal Taha to lead his nation at an Asian Cup.
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MANCHESTER: Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo is ready for an emotional return to his former club Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday but believes the Italian side can win by executing their gameplan.
Ronaldo is back at Old Trafford for the first time since 2013 when his goal for Real Madrid sent the Spaniards through to the Champions League quarter-finals at United’s expense.
“Emotional? I can remember what it was like when I was at Manchester,” the Portuguese said.
“I won lots of trophies here. I remember the support as well, the support was fantastic.”
Ronaldo lifted three Premier League titles, the FA Cup and two League Cups plus the first of his five Champions League crowns during six years at United and expects a tough game against Jose Mourinho’s team despite their recent struggles.
United are 10th in the Premier League after a sluggish start to the season and second in Champions League Group H, two points behind Juve after a win and a draw in their first two matches.
“It will be a difficult game. Manchester have a good team, they play at home,” Ronaldo said. “It will be tough for us, but we have our weapons. We have a chance, I know if we play the way the coach wants, we have a good chance to win the game.”
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, whose team are four points clear atop Serie A after eight wins and a draw, said they would have to match United’s physicality and revealed he would play with a back four to give the side more stability.
“It will be a physical game, we will have to approach it with great concentration, manage the ball and set up well on a technical level to avoid one of the greatest dangers that they can bring us, namely high balls,” Allegri said.
The Italians will be without their Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic due to an ankle injury, while their Germany midfielder Emre Can will miss the match because of a thyroid problem.
“I’m sorry there’s no Mandzukic, though it is not anything serious with him. I’d already thought about playing with others in attack,” Allegri added. “We’ll probably play with a back four because in midfield we’ll have to numerically match them.”