BEIRUT: Lebanon’s unlikely tilt at World Cup qualification received a decisive blow Tuesday, after a 1-0 loss to Group A leaders Uzbekistan.
The Cedars delivered a dogged performance through the course of the match, limiting Uzbekistan to speculative efforts and half chances for most of the 90 minutes, until Server Djeparov struck in the 63rd minute to hand all three points to the home side, as they edged closer to Rio 2014 qualification.
Unable to call upon the services of captain Roda Antar, who returned to China to resume his league duties following Friday’s 5-2 win over Thailand, the temporary conundrum was shortly thereafter rubber-stamped as the talisman announced his retirement from international football Monday.
Unfazed by the crushing news, Lebanon continued to build on their encouraging performance against Thailand, matching Uzbekistan blow for blow in the early goings. Buoyed by Friday’s brace, Hasan Chaito resumed his menacing runs in behind, testing Ignaty Nesterov with an 11th minute snap shot.
Haitham Faour and Adnan Haidar were the only two changes from the win, replacing Antar and Hasan Maatouk, who was suffering from fever, with Faour imposing his will on the game via his patented tenacity in the hub of midfield.
Breaking out in attack, Faour quickly found Abbas Atwi on the right flank, before the Nijmeh mainstay located the run of Chaito, who after collecting unleashed a quick-fire strike that fizzed past the post of the scrambling Nesterov.
Refusing to be outdone, Uzbekistan responded with a chance of their own, Djeparov zipping his corner past the face of the Lebanese goal, with Walid Ismail making an adept clearance at the right-hand post.
Lebanon gradually started to sit back, goading their opponents into attacks as they plotted an escape route on the counter. Their fastest outlet, Mohammad Haidar, was afforded a handful of forays down the left channel, but the Safa forward failed to find wiggle room as his attacks persistently tapered off in the final third.
So often the bedrock of the side, the back line was again affording Lebanon a platform from which to build, as Youssef Mohammad, Mootaz Jounaidi, Ali Hamam and Ismail operated in flowing unison to keep their superior foes at bay.
After the restart, Lebanon remained relatively comfortable, sitting deep with the attackers doubling back on defense. And in a performance reminiscent of the early stages of qualification, Faour continued to disrupt Uzbekistan’s flow in central areas. A full-blooded tackle from the defensive destroyer set the ball rolling for Mohammad Haidar, who without hesitation fired a first-time strike from outside the box that traveled high and wide past the Uzbek goal.
The stalemate precipitated a change from Uzbekistan coach Mirjalol Qosimov, with striker Farhod Tajiev replacing defender Artem Filiposyan as the side reshuffled their shape. Juxtaposed with growing fatigue among the Cedars’ ranks, the substitution worked like a charm for the hosts, as Lebanon’s rearguard slowly unraveled.
Uzbekistan’s first chance fell to Djeparov, with the captain exchanging a nimble give-and-go before the ball broke to him kindly with the 30-year-old lashing his effort over the bar.
Immediately after, substitute Tajiev should have opened the scoring, finding a pocket of space inside the Lebanese 18-yard-box before the towering forward rattled the post from his searing strike.
By now, Uzbekistan had grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck, hemming their opponents back as they began to break forward in numbers, with another Tajiev effort that ballooned over the goal seeing Lebanon close to breaking point.
A speculative effort from Abbas Atwi that finished nowhere near the goal, offered a moment of respite for the guests, before again finding themselves under the cosh as the Uzbekistan side maintained their relentless forward momentum.
And on 63 minutes the pressure finally told, as Dniprov, so often at the epicenter of Uzbek attacks, received the ball on the periphery of the box before his harmless shot took a slight deflection en route to goal.
On the back of an assured first half showing, Hasan didn’t cover himself in glory, as the ball bobbled twice post-deflection before laboring into the net.
An already-struggling Lebanon side were completely deflated, now tasked with chasing the game after they so valiantly held true for more than an hour. A quick free-kick from Adnan Haidar found Chaito in acres of space. Chaito cut across before rifling a shot that found the gloves of Nesterov.
Maatouk, who was contending with a high fever, was summoned by Theo Bucker, as the defensive-minded Faour made way for the flamboyant winger.
Tajiev continued to torment the Lebanese defense, this time cutting inside of Mohammad before flashing his strike past the right-hand post.
The wasted chances allowed Lebanon some cause for optimism and with 10 minutes to go, Bucker played his last cards with Abbas Atwi Onika and Alexis Khazzaka brought on for Mohammad Haidar and Abbas Atwi respectively.
The pair were fighting a losing battle as Lebanon were running on empty, the wear and tear of a spirited display had finally caught up with the brave 11.
The final whistle signaled Lebanon’s fourth loss of Group A, and more significantly their inevitable elimination, as even wins in their last two matches against Iran and South Korea are unlikely to prevent them from World Cup wilderness.
Uzbekistan remain on top of Group A with 11 points, while South Korea moved into second place on 10 points after defeating Qatar 2-1 with a last-gasp goal earlier.