‘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.
THINGS WE LEARNED FROM THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Peerless Paul Pogba, hapless PSG and sloppy City
After the first round of Champions League matches we look at the main talking points from club football’s biggest competition.
PSG WILL NOT WIN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE THIS SEASON
This is the one tournament the French club want to win, they are virtually assured of winning Ligue 1 year after year and in the glamor stakes the French top-flight does not quite cut it. Qatar has thrown a lot of cash at the capital club and in return PSG have some great players to thrill the fans — Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe make one heck of a front three. But while they have great individuals they do not have much of a team. The side’s 3-2 defeat at Liverpool highlighted everything that is wrong about the moneybags side, the attackers allowed to drift wherever they want, without much purpose and end result. The scoreline flattered the French side, make no mistake about it, Liverpool won at a canter. PSG get away with it in French football, but come the tough examinations in Europe they will get found out time and again.
POGBA SENDS A MESSAGE TO MOURINHO
If reports are to be believed it would seem Jose Mourinho has a fairly frosty relationship with Paul Pogba. It has been rumored that the Frenchman is keen to leave Manchester United and that the Portuguese boss would not do much to persuade him to stay. But on the evidence of Pogba’s performance in United’s 3-0 win at Young Boys in Switzerland Mourinho would be well advised to do everything in his power to keep the midfield maestro. The 25-year-old dominated the clash and showed exactly why he is, on his day, the best midfielder on the planet. He scored twice, to now give him four goals in six matches, having managed six last season for the club and nine in the previous campaign. His opener at Young Boys saw him make a run from midfield to near the area before a brilliant left-foot finish soared into the back of the net. Mourinho praised his captain after the match and will doubtless set about trying to prise that sort of performance from his main man week in, week out.
CITY ARE LESS THAN SLICK
Having coasted to the Premier League title last season, breaking numerous records along the way, City were favorites to win the Champions League this year. But one game in, a shock defeat at home to Lyon, and there appear to be cracks in the side. The 2-1 loss was a huge shock and for once the slick passing and ability to create chances galore were noticeable by their absence. Once they fell behind, Pep Guardiola’s men looked as if they could not think on their feet, unable to work out why they were not brushing aside a team that have failed to challenge for the French title for several years. It is only one match, but as starts to a campaign go, it could not have gone much worse.