DUBAI: It has been a wonderful week for the Lebanese national team and, looking back, it could have been even better.
If Lebanon hadn’t missed a great opportunity with the last kick of the game with South Korea in September, they would have come back from East Asia with a 1-1 draw instead of a defeat 1-0 and would not be tied on points with Korea. in second place in group A.
As it stands, the Cedars are not doing too badly, occupying third place in the last qualifying round with five points, two ahead of the United Arab Emirates and Iraq and four ahead of Syria. That’s impressive for the bottom-ranked team of the 12 in the final round, and there may well be more to come.
Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over Syria in Amman was spectacular in more ways than one. First of all, it was largely entertaining. Syria had the best of the first half by far and looked to be heading towards the break with a 1-0 lead as the visitors scored twice in added time. To put it more precisely, Mohamad Kdouh has scored twice. The 24-year-old struck from close range first, then fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner from outside the box. Soony Saad extended the lead after the break, and as Syria returned to the game, Lebanon held on for the win.
It was only fitting that Syria would be the opponent, as Lebanon is starting to mirror some of the Qasioun Eagles’ efforts in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. No one really expects Lebanon to challenge South Korea and Iran for the first two automatic places as they may lack consistency and depth over 10 games, but with other teams dropping points left, right and center, third is quite a possibility.
This is what Syria achieved last time. The team finished behind Iran and South Korea and won a play-off against Australia. They pushed the Socceroos all the way, losing just 3-2 on aggregate, with Tim Cahill scoring the crucial goal in extra time in the second leg. Something similar is possible for Lebanon this time around. Syria won just three out of 10 games to take third place, with the teams taking points, as they are now. Lebanon have already shown that they can compete with the other teams.
Teamwork and the refusal to give up have served Syria well. On the road to Russia, they scored in the last minute in four of the last five qualifiers to clinch the spot ahead of 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 pitch, they danced together outside.
“The game was as difficult as expected, but I am really proud of the players who managed to handle the pressure from the start thanks to their great fighting spirit,” said team head coach Ivan Hasek. “The most important thing now is to capitalize on this victory. What we have accomplished now is a small step on the road to our dream. “
Lebanon do not yet have the quality strikers like Omar Khribin and Omar Al-Somah that Syria bragged about, although if Kdouh can keep up that pace there could be a spike up front that can make the difference in close matches. Lebanon, however, is just as difficult to beat as Syria, is strong defensively – the exploits of goalkeeper Mostafa Matar are still talked about in Seoul – and do not make things any easier for the opposition.
There is another factor in their favor. Syria placed third despite not playing a home game for security reasons. Lebanon have the advantage of the home advantage, and it is an asset that they have not yet played. So far, all four games have been played elsewhere. The September clash with South Korea was scheduled to take place at home, but was reversed for mutually beneficial reasons in that the Koreans had played a home game five days earlier and preferred to reduce their travel and the Lebanon did not want to go, as initially planned, to Seoul. in January, when evening temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
That means five of the remaining six games will be in Lebanon, and it’s a tough place to go. South Korea lost at the Camille Chamoun Sports City stadium in Beirut in November 2011 and the following September Iran suffered the same fate. In the previous round of this qualifying campaign, South Korea drew 0-0.
Beirut has been a powerful weapon in the past, but will not host games this time around as that privilege will revert to the city of Sidon. If the supporters can recreate the same hostile atmosphere, then anything can happen, as long as the supporters are allowed in. The Lebanese Football Association is trying to persuade the authorities to give the green light.
There is then real hope. The other five teams in Group A are going to have to travel to Lebanon and get something from an increasingly confident team. No one will find it easy, and Sidon may be the 12th man to give Lebanon an unlikely chance to make it to the 2022 World Cup.