Lebanon lose opening Arab Nations match

Lebanese team players. (The Daily Star/HO)

Iraq defeated Lebanon 1-0 Sunday in the opening match of Group C at the Arab Nations Cup in Saudi Arabia. The Cedars have yet to win a match since losing to the UAE in February. Lebanon will meet Sudan Wednesday, with Iraq tackling Egypt.

Lebanon’s recent performances have been riddled with errors and lacking in quality. The team never fully recovered from their 4-2 defeat to the UAE, which has seen their form absolutely capitulate. The Cedars have failed to register a single win since that fateful day, with the loss resulting in a residual effect or uncertainty and a lack of cohesion permeating through the team’s ranks.

And with the 2012 Arab Nations Cup arose an opportunity for Theo Bucker and his team to right the ship, to rectify the seeping oversights that have plagued the team for months now. The Cedars were drawn in a tough group, consisting of Egypt, Sudan and Iraq. In the opening match of their group, Lebanon faced Iraq, ironically the last team they defeated.

The drabbest of first halves made for dire viewing, with both sides exhibiting disjointed, unimaginative and lifeless performances. Lebanon were without some of their big guns, most notably Youssef Mohammad, the captain and heartbeat of the team. Instead, starts for youngsters such as Nader Matar were in order, and the inexperience was evident from the offset.

Thankfully the half came to an end with neither team even threatening their opponent’s goal. The second period offered more cutting-edge performances from both sides, as the play began to ebb and flow. Lebanon were far from looking imperious, but as the game wore on, the likelihood of a Lebanese goal seemed a realistic possibility.

They first had to dodge a bullet, after Mustafa Karim’s expertly curled free kick rattled the upright with Ziad al-Samad routed to his spot. Just as in the Uzbekistan game, Lebanon gradually began to up their game, and by the 70-minute mark, the Cedars were the dominant side.

The slow starts must be haunting Bucker, who has failed to solve this labyrinth that has seen the team stutter for a sustained period of time. Bucker’s frustration was exalted, with his side wasting chance after chance.

First, a neat Abbas Atwi free kick threatened to breach Iraq’s goal before creeping wide of the post. Then a headed effort from Akram Moghrabi whistled wide of the goal, as Lebanon began to push forward. The best chance of the game fell to Moghrabi again, as expansive football from Lebanon set the Nijmeh man free on the right of the 18 yard box. Moghrabi struck his with abundant power, yet insufficient accuracy, as Mohammad Hameed got down low to save convincingly.

The wastefulness would administer a sting in the tail for the Cedars, as the dangerous Karim popped up in the 89th minute to crash his header past Samad and give Iraq a vital win in their opening game. Lebanon’s fortunes are going from bad to worse, as they seem unable to replicate the form that saw them making the secondary group of World Cup qualifications for the first time in the country’s history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 25, 2012, on page 14.




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