DUBAI: It’s been a wonderful week for the Lebanese national team and, in hindsight, could have been even better.
Had Lebanon not missed a great opportunity with the last kick of the game with South Korea in September, they would have come away from East Asia with a 1-1 draw instead of a 1-0 defeat and would not be level on points with Korea in second place in Group A.
As it is, the Cedars are not doing too badly, sitting in third in the final round of qualification with five points, two clear of the UAE and Iraq and four ahead of Syria. It’s impressive stuff for the lowest-ranked team of all 12 in the final round, and there may well be more to come.
Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Syria in Amman was spectacular in more ways than one. First, it was widely entertaining. Syria had by far the best of the first half and looked to be heading into the break with a 1-0 lead when the visitors scored twice in added time. To put it more accurately, Mohamad Kdouh scored twice. The 24-year-old first slotted home from close range and then fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner from outside the area. Soony Saad extended the lead after the break, and while Syria came back into it, Lebanon held on for the win.
It was fitting that Syria were the opponents, as Lebanon are starting to mirror some of the Qasioun Eagles’ efforts in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Nobody really expects Lebanon to challenge South Korea and Iran for the top two automatic spots as they may lack the consistency and depth over 10 games, but with other teams dropping points left, right and center, third is very much a possibility.
That is what Syria managed last time. The team finished behind Iran and South Korea and earned themselves a play-off against Australia. They pushed the Socceroos all the way, losing only 3-2 on aggregate with Tim Cahill getting the crucial goal in extra time of the second leg. Something similar is possible for Lebanon this time around. Syria only won three games out of the 10 to take third as teams took points off each other, as is happening now. Lebanon have already shown they can match the other teams.
Teamwork and an unwillingness to give up served Syria well. On the road to Russia, they scored in the last minute in four out of the last five qualifiers to clinch that place above Uzbekistan on goal difference. Lebanon have the same spirit and determination, and they kept running until the 99th minute on Tuesday when the game finally ended. Despite their understandable fatigue, the celebrations were intense and just as the players fought for each other on the field, they danced together off it.
“The match was as difficult as we expected, but I’m really proud with the players who knew how to handle the early pressure thanks to their great fighting spirit,” said the team’s head coach Ivan Hasek. “The most important thing now is to build on this victory. What we achieved now is a small step on the road of our dream.”
Lebanon do not yet have the quality strikers like Omar Khribin and Omar Al-Somah that Syria boasted, though if Kdouh can keep this up, there may be a cutting edge up front that can make the difference in tight games. Lebanon are, however, just as hard to beat as Syria were, are defensively strong — the exploits of goalkeeper Mostafa Matar are still being talked about in Seoul — and do not make things easy for the opposition.
There is another factor in their favor. Syria made it into third despite not playing a single game at home due to security reasons. Lebanon have the trump card of home advantage, and it is one that they have yet to play. All four games so far have taken place elsewhere. September’s South Korea clash was due to be held at home but was switched for mutually beneficial reasons in that the Koreans had a home game five days earlier and preferred to cut down on travel and Lebanon did not want to go, as originally scheduled, to Seoul in January when evening temperatures can drop as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.
This means that five of the six games remaining will take place in Lebanon, and it is a hard place to go. South Korea famously lost in Beirut’s Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium in November 2011 and the following September, Iran suffered the same fate. In the previous round of this qualification campaign, South Korea drew 0-0.
Beirut has been a potent weapon in the past but will not be hosting games this time as that privilege will fall to the city of Sidon. If fans there can recreate the same hostile atmosphere, then anything can happen, assuming fans are allowed in. The Lebanon Football Association is trying to persuade authorities to give the go-ahead.
There is real hope then. The other five teams in Group A are going to have to go to Lebanon and get something from an increasingly confident team. None will find it easy, and it may just be that Sidon can be the 12th man that gives Lebanon an unlikely shot at going to the 2022 World Cup.