Vanuatu looked set to compete for a spot in the FIFA World Cup 2022. Having travelled to Qatar for the qualifiers, its campaign hit a dead end when a COVID-19 outbreak rattled the camp in March last year.
The team withdrew from all three World Cup qualifiers and has played just two international friendlies since, against Fiji and Solomon Islands, respectively.
On Friday, June 9, when it opens its Intercontinental Cup campaign at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, it will look to get its momentum back. And in its way stands Lebanon, the highest-ranked side in the tournament at 99, and the only visiting team here to play in the AFC Asian Cup 2024.
On paper, the match between a side ranked 164 and Lebanon might seem like a David vs Goliath match-up but the Cedars have been struggling for form for about two years now.
Since June 8, 2021, it has played 16 international matches and has won just twice, against Syria (a 3-2 win on October 12, 2021) and Sudan (a 1-0 win on December 8, 2021). In its last five games, it has conceded nine goals, with no wins in these games.
It is here Vanuatu would look to hurt its opposition with forwards Alex Saniel and Azariah Solomon expected to keep Lebanon guessing in the final third.
In defence, it will be guarded by newly crowned Australian league champion and captain Brian Kaltak. The centre-back has been a revelation in the A-League this season and won the league title with the Central Coast Mariners this month.
Lebanon’s biggest advantage, on the other hand, will be its early arrival. The team arrived in India on June 7 and has already experienced immense heat, sudden showers and thunderstorms before the first matchday.
Though heavy showers, forced it to stop training on the penultimate day of the match, Vanuatu will take the field almost directly, without prior training in Indian conditions.
These matches will also be the perfect opportunity for Lebanon to remove its blemishes of previous losses, in the run-up for the Asian Cup.
“We have to think differently than before because we have never played so many games (in such a short time). We have only three days for three games and it won’t be easy,” Hassan Maatouk, the captain of Lebanon, told the reporters in the pre-match press conference.
“We reached only yesterday and we have to train more to get better. I know it will be difficult but we must try and win the game.”
Vanuatu is playing Lebanon for the first time and will be the opening fixture of the tournament, set to kick-off at 4:30 pm IST.
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