The 2023 AFC Asian Cup may be six months away, but preparations have already started for the 24 qualified nations.
Lebanon know that eyes will be on them from day one as they take on hosts Qatar in the opening fixture on Jan. 12, 2024.
Hassan Maatouk, the Cedars’ captain, has stressed the team’s strong spirits and continued preparations to reach their major objective of the quarterfinal, particularly given the considerable time they have set aside for camps and friendly matches in order to find harmony among the players.
In a group with the hosts, China and Tajikistan, it will not be easy, and history is against them.
The competition was moved to January of next year after China pulled out of hosting duties and will end on Feb. 10 with 10 Arab teams taking part, one fewer than the 11 that played in the 2019 edition in the UAE.
Following the curtain-raiser at Al-Bayt Stadium, Lebanon will play China on Jan. 17 and Tajikistan on Jan. 22, both at Al-Thumama Stadium.
They will be hoping for a big improvement in their results at the last edition of the tournament.
Lebanon won only one of its three 2019 matches — 4-1 against North Korea — before suffering losses to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both with a score of 0-2.
The opener against Qatar certainly looks the most challenging for the Lebanese, for several reasons.
For a start, the Maroons are the reigning champions and will be doing their utmost to retain the title they claimed in the UAE in 2019. Secondly, they will be keen to make amends to their fans after the massive disappointment of the 2022 World Cup.
More will be expected from Lebanon against the other two teams in the group.
Tajikistan are theoretically the easiest opponent and the only team in the group whose FIFA ranking of 109 is lower than Lebanon’s (99). Despite this, the team has managed to make it to the Asian Cup finals for the first time in their history under the leadership of Croatian coach Petar Segrt and should not be taken lightly.
Lebanon will hope that by the time they face China in their final group fixture their chances of progressing to the Round of 16 are still alive.
Since taking over the Cedars in August of last year, Serbian coach Aleksandar Ilic has overseen several poor results.
He has received significant backing from the Football Association in an effort to change the strategy and direction of the Lebanese national team by introducing young players who can keep up with the rapid development of other Asian teams. The team’s last three friendly matches have resulted in away losses to Kuwait in November (2-0), the UAE in December (1-0) and Oman in March (2-0).
Veterans such as Mohamad Haidar, Rabih Ataya, Omar Bugiel, Kassem El-Zein, and Mostafa Matar have been sidelined as younger players like Mohamed Sadek, Ali Tneich, Mohamad Baker El-Housseini, and Ali Al-Hajj have been drafted in.
However, 35-year-old captain Hassan Maatouk, goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil, and midfielder Nader Matar have retained their place in the squad.
The rest of 2023, and the buildup to the AFC Asian Cup, will be hectic as the team takes part in the Intercontinental Cup in India; the 2023 SAFF Championship also in India; the Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia; several friendlies and even the start of the qualifying campaign for the 2026 World Cup.
As always, logistical and economic challenges abound for the team and its coach, while on the technical side, the players continue to play on artificial pitches at home.
Despite this, Lebanon still have a good chance of making it out of the group stage as the tournament system allows the top two teams in each group, along with the best third-place teams, to advance to the Round of 16.
Such an achievement might seem modest from the outside, but it would be a historic first for the Cedars and will bring a sense of joy and pride to the long-suffering people of Lebanon.