BEIRUT: Lebanon were denied qualification to the 2015 Asian Cup despite a resounding 5-2 win in their final Group B tie against Thailand in Bangkok Wednesday.
The Cedars looked on course for an unlikely berth in Australia as the best third-placed side among the five groups, before fate intervened when Kraisorn Adisak’s 72nd-minute goal for Thailand coupled with China’s late penalty against Iraq prevented Guissepe Giannini’s men from only their second appearance at next summer’s continental showpiece.
China’s superior goal difference, albeit by a solitary strike, was enough to see them squirm past the Lebanese, with Iraq also qualifying as Group C runners-up after their 3-1 win over China.
After tinkering with the Cedars shape ad nauseam since his appointment, Giannini appeared to have finally struck gold with the 3-5-2 formation he deployed in Wednesday’s encounter.
With hatchet man Haitham Faour anchoring the back-three and wing-backs Walid Ismail and Ali Hamam offering support in central areas and the final third, Lebanon were quick to snaffle control from their opponents in the middle of the park.
Hasan Maatouk, who was afforded free rein on the pitch, often dropped deep to further consolidate Lebanon’s stranglehold in midfield, and it was not long before their dominance told.
Abbas Atwi’s second minute corner typified Lebanon’s aerial advantage, as Mohammad Ghaddar rose above the Thai defenders to arrow his header into the roof of the net.
Maatouk was in the thick of the action for much of the 90 minutes, and it took a moment of inspiration from the crafty forward to leave the Lebanese faithful daring to dream of a famous victory.
Roda Antar’s up-field punt to Ghaddar was cut out by onrushing Thailand goalkeeper Sivaruk Tedsungnoen with Maatouk meeting the clearance with a sublime first-time strike that fluttered and floated for what seemed like an eternity before nestling in the top corner.
By now, Lebanon were in cruise control with Maatouk flourishing in a more central role, and Faour harassing and harrying his Thai counterparts at the slightest sight of ball.
But it was the Ahed midfielder who then gifted Thailand a route back into the match, upending Teerasil Dangda in the box with a lazy and needless challenge.
Teeratep Winothai sent Abbas Hasan the wrong way to offer the hosts a glimmer of hope, as Lebanon were reminded of the magnitude of the task at hand.
And when a seemingly injured Ghaddar was replaced by Soony Saad midway through the first half, Lebanon’s grip on proceedings was in jeopardy of unraveling.
But the 21-year-old repaid Giannini’s faith with a well-worked poacher’s goal on the stroke of halftime. Another penetrative run from Maatouk had the Thai back line at sixes and sevens, before he released Antar on the right flank who whipped his center across goal with Saad ghosting in to apply the final touch from point blank.
Maatouk’s virtuoso performance only improved after the restart, as the former Ahed man doubled his tally for the game with Lebanon’s first attack of the second half.
A hasty clearance from Hasan was flicked on by Saad for a marauding Maatouk, who, without having to break stride, rifled his shot past the outstretched arm of Tedsungnoen.
With news filtering through of China’s three-goal deficit to Iraq, Lebanon were through to the Asian Cup as things stood.
But rather than rest on their laurels, the Cedars continued to probe the opposition defense with a host of chances accompanying the surging guests.
And when Cedars’ talisman Antar applied the Midas touch on an exhilarating team performance with a 62nd-minute thunderbolt, Lebanon’s place in Australia appeared set in stone.
But as so often is the case in the unforgiving game of football, the gods conspired to reduce Lebanon to a gut-wrenching, unceremonious and somewhat inevitable finale.
First Lebanon were denied the chance to increase their advantage when Maatouk was clearly clipped inside the area, with the Japanese referee instead adjudging the infringement to have taken place outside of the 18-yard box.
After setting a grueling pace for the majority of the match, the Lebanese tanks were running on fumes toward the end, as catcalls from the home fans urged their men forward.
And the Thai sucker punch arrived 18 minutes from time, as Adisak bypassed a now ragged Lebanese defense before slotting past Hasan.
But the decisive blow came from halfway across the continent, as China’s Zhang Xizhe converted a 75th-minute penalty to eliminate the Cedars from the qualification reckoning and break Lebanese hearts.