WCQ: Lebanon v South Korea Preview

After Thursday’s goalfest, full of uncompetitive contests between the sides from Pot 1 and Pot 5, Tuesday should offer something rather different. There are many eagerly anticipated games and one of them is surely the familiar Lebanon – South Korea matchup.

Our very own Tom Danicek therefore partners with Lebanese native Hamoudi from Ahdaaf to provide you with an exclusive Q&A slash preview…

Lebanon and South Korea indeed know each other very well.

Since 2004, both these sides have faced each other six times (all competitive fixtures), and while the East Asian favourites won all home games without conceding and with 11 goals scored, it was a whole different image everytime these teams met in the Middle East. Lebanon didn’t lose any of the three matches in 2004, 2011 and 2013.

As for these qualifiers, Lebanon suffered a heart-breaking loss to Kuwait to start off; it was a tough battle, marked by some harsh fouls and decided by one blunder from the Lebanese goalkeeper. At least Laos didn’t cause any significant trouble to the Cedars in the following qualifier, falling to a 0:2 defeat at home.

South Korea also didn’t take off convincingly; two goals from set pieces – one from a corner and one via a deflected free kick – did grant the Taeguk Warriors a deserved three points, but it was an unexpected sweating vs Myanmar. Laos, again, meant something different: Son Heung-min scored a hattrick amidst a confident, free-flowing performance from a star-studded team.

Now, South Korea are about to face their first proper test, so Tom starts with his five key questions investigating what kind of an opponent Stielike’s men are getting in Lebanon…

 


 

1) Lebanon have a relatively new head coach in Miodrag Radulović (in charge since January 2015), have you spotted any peculiar difference in his approach compared to his predecessor? Tactical or any other.

Any important team news coming out of the camp we should be aware of? Shall we expect any changes to the lineup that beat Laos in June; is anyone injured?

Tactically, the latter is much more conservative and generic and it is understandable after the rollercoaster ride under Giuseppe Giannini. Giannini effectively left his post as national team manager to indoctrinate a 3-4-3 formation that was very reminiscent to the shape and style used by Liverpool in England and Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia.

This was the death of the national team as many young players were involved in a formation that offered little protection, while also seeing the more experienced players suffer from a lack of game time alongside problems at club level. What made matters even worse is the fact that a 3-defender formation from Lebanon was only used on a couple of occasions in the league, via Nabi Chit and the now-relegated Ikhaa Ahli Aley; two teams with no players in any of the national teams.

Moving on to Radulović, it seems that the job he’s done with Al-Jahra in Kuwait was different (without taking context into account) to his task in Lebanon due to the mess Giannini left him with. He applies a 4-2-3-1 with wingers tracking back; not that they need to because the full backs have been Lebanon’s best players over the WCQ with Ali Hamam shutting out the dangerous winger Fahad Al-Enezi 1v1.

Looking at the team news, it was said that Ali Hamam and Hassan Maatouk were, in fact, injured but the latter scored for Fujairah against Al-Wahda in the Arabian Gulf Cup and it seems that Hamam is fine. The bigger blow is the case of the newest professionals. Bassel Jradi and Mohammad Ramadan came in to play against Iraq for the first time and they clicked, bringing a much needed sense of life into the attack!

That was until news outlets claimed they backed out of the decision to play competitively, before Radulović and other sources came out to say that “they will be back next time, in the games over the coming months”. Not exactly setting an optimistic tone for a Lebanese fan base that is currently in tatters over the mismanagement. However this seems to be the case across the whole Middle East, with Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman suffering from the same problems…

2) Boy, how good is Hassan Maatouk? In what seems to be a not particularly fluid 4-4-2 formation, he looks like the only true game-changing element; and a game-changing element he’s been for Lebanon. Two assists against Laos, two classy goals in the previous successful qualifier vs Thailand (5:2 in March 2014), one sole strike in the last encounter with South Korea…

How is he doing in UAE at the moment, did he arrive in fine shape?

You got that right, it is a very rigid 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 formation with very little movement (only provided by the always-buzzing Maatouk). He’s also started off superbly with Fujairah, bagging a beautiful consolation against arguably Asia’s hottest team alongside Guangzhou and Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli Dubai. He also went on to score once again despite ending the previous game with an injury.

Lebanon’s hopes of hurting South Korea will come through him, as Soony Saad is injured once again and the lack of club time and ageing players across the whole attacking department hinders their ability to play seamlessly.

3) Even bar Maatouk, there are plenty of familiar names in the squad. Yousif Mohammad still organizes the defensive line, Abbas Atwi still takes most of set pieces and Roda Antar still represents that majestic figure in the middle of the park. How vital are these 34/35-year-old veterans to the current team, don’t they embody a bit of anachronism for Lebanon at this stage of their illustrious careers?

Are they getting an easy ride from the fans for what they’ve done in the past, or quite the opposite?

Yousif Mohammad right now is absolutely revered by the Lebanese faithful, as despite not playing club football for almost 2 years he does not look out of shape, not one bit. Sure, in his twilight years he would need protection but you don’t get much better than Haitham Faour.

I would argue that Lebanon’s most important player, the enforcer, the anchor, the balance, Mr. Reliable, is Haitham Faour. Lebanon have a good base in defence, yet the 1-0 loss to Kuwait was the epitome of their poor attack while the goalkeeper Abbas Hassan – who let’s face it, makes deplorable saves – undid their good work with his utterly embarassing decision making costing Lebanon the chance to guarantee a point.

However no one would blame Radulovic, as here are his options:

  • Hassan Bitar – one game for Champions Al-Ahed in 2014/15
  • Mohammad Hammoud – Best goalkeeper in Lebanon, yet banned due to match fixing
  • Nazih Asaad – Nejmeh’s star goalkeeper before crumbling under the pressure, comparable to Simon Mignolet
  • Ahmad Taktouk – The Brad Jones to the Simon Mignolet (see Nazih Asaad) at Nejmeh
  • Ali Halal – a promising U23 goalkeeper for Lebanon, however he plays for a team that avoided relegation on the last day
  • Ziad Al-Samad – retired
  • Larry Mehanna – retired from international football
  • Abdo Tafeh – He’s a nice guy…
  • Abbas Hassan – “Mr. Safe Hands” who plays for a club abroad, making him the most viable option (in this case, not really)

So there you have a good base in Lebanon, as I also mentioned Walid Ismail (LB) and Ali Hamam (RB) both at Hazfi Cup Champions Zob Ahan, who bring good circulation and reliability in that sense.

Abbas Atwi is the man for Lebanon right now too, as he just keeps on going. Not to mistake him for the other Abbas Atwi ‘Onika’ who retired from international football, but the former looks set to play as a #10 which is good for Lebanon.

Now, this may sound surprising, but the man to partner Faour in central midfield is Roda Antar. Sure, he’s the best player to come across Lebanese football, however he seems to be getting the Steven Gerrard treatment. Yes, our legend, our love, the symbol of Lebanese football, yet he brings nothing to the game besides the fact that he wears the captain’s armband and his name itself.

4) South Korea have a notoriously bad record when it comes to games played in Lebanon. While the Cedars are not exactly invincible at home generally, they haven’t lost to the Taeguk Warriors in front of their own crowd since 1993, which is one hell of a run.

Now, Uli Stielike said he doesn’t know why others “are trying to link past failures with the current team”, insisting they are a “different team” now. But still, can you pinpoint any connection between those two recent matchups in 2011 and 2013 (win and draw)? Any area where South Koreans constantly struggle against Lebanon?

It definitely had to do with the fans and that the team itself was instilled with the Theo Bucker mentality. Bucker was quoted on Lebanese TV show Offside saying “On the pitch, I don’t know my brother from someone else. I am there to win for the Lebanese people, the people I love. I get angry simply because I want to win.”

And now, whoever the manager is, the nations South Korea and Kuwait will always cause a spark amongst Lebanese supporters due to the history between the three in World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. The question is, does Radulovic have enough to enhance the mentality of the team? Until now, he’s looked as if he has been bullied by the President of the LFA (Hachem Haidar)…

5) In the very end, let’s dig a bit deeper. Lebanon have produced some fabulous footballers over the years, but they seem to be unable to put together a truly competitive team. They’ve only featured at one Asian Cup (2000), and even then, they needed to qualify as hosts to not make it out of the group stages. What would you highlight as *the* reasons for this continual underachieving? Apart from the excessive smoking of Shisha, that is.

Or is it even underachieving per se, from your point of view?

It is a really tough question to answer, but it is certainly underacheiving. To never have reached the Asian Cup is a tragedy for a country like Lebanon, which has produced some quality footballers and periods of joy. However corruption is the biggest problem, with it being the sole – not main, but sole – reason for missing out on the World Cup and Asian Cup.

The average foreign player salary is $6,250 a month, with the local player in Lebanon earning around $2,000-3,000 a month. Plus, if you don’t have the mentality and ambition as Yousif Mohammad and Roda Antar did, you’re bound to do anything for money. Corruption from the government, the football association and the clubs.

Add to that is the political and sectarian differences seen everyday in Lebanese football… You don’t support clubs based on location or tradition, but on the religion (and on a deeper level, sect) of the owner and club practices.

 


 

1) Watching South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, I’d never seen them in such a mess. I always knew Korean teams as hard working, nifty and unheralded tactically and technically. What has made them such a powerhouse in Asia is the general question, but what has halted their progress to the latter stages of the World Cup, consistently? And why have they been suffering from the Asian Cup conundrum for so many years? Is that the case of falling to teams like Lebanon?

It’s a cliché, besides mostly reserved for Uzbekistan, but I would call the main concern “lack of winning mentality”. The 2015 Asian Cup final, lost through an individual mistake, as well as terribly screwed up penalty shoot-out in the 2011 Asian Cup semi-final are both sufficient examples on their own, but even the recent East Asian Cup provides a proof of sorts.

Yes, ultimately they are the champions, but they’ve earned the tag by failing to beat a significantly worse North Korea (on the day at least) and counting on their arch rivals from Japan to not lose to China. Hardly convincing title-winning run indeed.

As for the latest World Cup experience, first and foremost, South Korea arrived to Brazil with an inexperienced coach and horribly unprepared overall – with next to no game plan, a poorly harmonized centre back tandem and useless strikers.

Now, I’m certainly not going to claim the Taeguk Warriors have come a long way since then, but the sole fact that the Asian Cup final appearance was mainly down to fine defensive work is enough to demonstrate some progress have been made.

The question of an ideal CB partnership still looms above Stielike’s head, mind you, but it’s turned into a pleasant-ish dilemma, as Kim Young-gwon has finally found some solid ground under his feet and is living up to the hype, let it be next to Kwak Tae-hwi, Hong Jeong-ho or even Kim Kee-hee.

Similarly small, yet noticeable steps forward can also be registered up top. To bet on a second-tier striker in Lee Jung-hyup was a surprising move to begin with, but albeit there will always be some limitations to his game, Stielike has at least introduced a clear idea of how he wants his no. 9 to play.

Stielike’s callups for the striker’s position are usually very similar in terms of movement (and, um, troublesome finishing), so the confusing World Cup situation with Park Chu-young and Kim Shin-wook putting in different, yet equally disappointing shifts no longer threatens.

Finally, onto the ‘Lebanon curse’… I suppose you could say South Korea generally struggle to break down clearly inferior opponents. Ki Sung-yueng is normally stuck between his attacking minded and ‘playing it safe’ self, while Koo Jae-cheol usually acts more like a grinder in that AM role, rather than like someone who’d provide South Korea with the much-needed cutting edge on a regular basis.

That said, this sort of issue is causing headaches to most Asian giants, Japan and Australia included, so I personally wouldn’t read that much into it.

2) Uli Stielike is a strict 4-2-3-1 man, so what can we expect in a tactical sense and the team to team battle on the pitch?

That Stielike had been profiling as a strict 4-2-3-1 man from the very beginning of his South Korea stint, that’s absolutely true. However, the previous Laos game has somewhat changed his image in the eyes of most; for once, the German went wild (for his standards anyway) and ditched the double pivot for sake of a more offensive 4-1-4-1 setup.

Now, it was the lowly Laos, so I expect Stielike to be more cautious in Lebanon, but it was an exciting experience nonetheless. Jung Woo-young acted like a proper deep-lying playmaker (producing a ground-breaking vertical pass before the second goal), whereas in the past, Ki Sung-yueng had been covered almost exclusively by defensive minded worker bees and/or furious tacklers.

Otherwise, I’d recommend you to focus on South Korean left back. Hong Chul provided his teammates with three assists against Laos, and even if Kim Jin-su is restored in his place, that sort of explosiveness will surely remain intact. Since Cha Du-ri’s retirement, the left-hand side has been exploited to much greater extent than the opposite flank, where you traditionally get a more conservative fullback.

As for the attacking department, expect South Korea to play particularly narrow this time around. With Lee Jae-sung poised to start instead of Son Heung-min, who’s wrapping up his move to Tottenham, and Koo Jae-cheol joining the team at the same time, the Taeguk Warriors will probably line up with three AMs supporting an old-fashioned target man in Suk Hyun-jun.

3) South Korea produce brilliant defensive midfielders, with three of them starring in the Arabian Gulf League last season (Lee Myung-joo, Kwon Kyung-kwon and Shin Jin-ho). I’ve always been curious, has it been the centre of the pitch that has been the most important zone for South Korea that they absolutely bossed (having players such as Ki Sung-yueng) yet failed to make an impact through the attacking players via various forms of attack, namely through the flanks and individual brilliance?

Oh absolutely, it’s been the focal point in South Korea line-ups for some time now, and also the point almost every discussion about national team setup revolves around.

For instance, I would advocate for further use of the dynamic Asian Cup double pivot with Ki Sung-yueng and Park Joo-ho, whereas many others would claim Park – a left back by trade – is being suffocated in the middle of the park.

There’s barely any possibility of consensus when it comes to this area of the pitch and the seemingly endless list of candidates doesn’t help the case either. You’ve got Jang Hyun-soo, whom I find to be quite conservative and ‘tasteless’, without an obvious strength. You’ve got Han Kook-young, an aggressive element from the World Cup, who just tirelessly concedes fouls in dangerous areas. You’ve got the aforementioned Jung Woo-young…

When you mention the Middle East, by the way, that’s a very curious issue for me. All three named AGL representatives barely ever receive an invitation and with the nearing retirement of Kwak Tae-hwi, it’s not difficult to foresee a future without a Middle East-based South Korean international with a serious shot for a permanent spot in the starting eleven.

Sure, Lee Myung-joo and Han Kook-young are both still pretty young, plus you always have Nam Tae-hee, but the latter has been hugely disappointing for the KNT (especially compared to his exploits at Lekhwiya) and judging by the Asian Cup, he’s still the one who’s arguably highest in Stielike’s hierarchy, which doesn’t really bode well in this respect.

4) How is the mental state of the team based on the friendlies, national team picks and management? Any big misses?

You’d imagine South Korea are high on confidence after the 8:0 beating of Laos. Moreover, two Germany-based legionaries Park Joo-ho and Koo Ja-cheol arrived belatedly to join the squad just for this game, which should be a significant boost in itself.

So much so I don’t expect South Korea to miss Son any greatly; after all, I’ve been critical of him in the past, as he often plays a bit solo and isn’t particularly picky when taking shots. Granted, Son Heung-min looked very good against Laos, but so did the offence led by Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Jae-sung in two East Asian Cup games against better sides.

One omission in the squad that stands out, though, is incidentally connected with one of the biggest East Asian Cup stars; Lee Jong-ho. He’s been red hot for Jeonnam in the K-League and embodies the sort of direct and goals generating left winger South Korea could sorely miss in Son’s absence.

While South Korea national team followers are usually divided on all kind of topics, there was a rare sense of unanimous disagreement with this Stielike’s choice; especially as Lee’s rival Kim Seung-dae has recently been benched more often than not for Pohang.

5) Where is the part that Lebanon can hit really hard, based on my answers? If Lee Jae-sung plays, do you think his continous pestering will hurt the ageing Roda Antar?

South Korea must overload the central areas, or Roda Antar if you will. What Stielike has at his disposal nowadays is some fantastic depth in this particular department and so he should definitely look to maximize its value.

He can choose three ingredients from this menu: a pondering, more horizontally oriented playmaker (Lee Chung-yong); a direct, more vertically oriented playmaker with fine dribbling ability (Lee Jae-sung); a hard-working finisher (Koo Ja-cheol); a direct player with good instinct in the final third (Kim Seung-dae); driving force from deep (Kwon Chang-hoon); or the latest callup for the left wing (Kim Min-woo).

That’s great variety and I can’t wait to see how Stielike opts to channel this diverse quality.

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