Lebanon coach Iilic: Too early to think about reaching the SAFF Championship final

Being the highest-ranked team and playing back-to-back tournaments in India -- naturally, the spotlight is on Lebanon, which is touted to be one of the favourite to reach the final. 

Published : Jun 22, 2023 21:20 IST , Bengaluru - 3 MINS READ

Lebanon head coach Alexandar Ilic.
Lebanon head coach Alexandar Ilic. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/The Hindu

Lebanon head coach Alexandar Ilic. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/The Hindu


Lebanon came in the 2023 SAFF Championship as the highest-ranked team (99) and right after a 2-0 loss against India in the final of the Intercontinental Cup. 

Being the highest-ranked team and playing back-to-back tournaments in India -- naturally, the spotlight is on the Cedars, who are touted to be one of the favourites to reach the final. 

Lebanon started its SAFF Championship campaign with a 2-0 win against Bangladesh in a dominant performance, especially in the second-half. Talks of Lebanon reaching back-to-back finals are already doing the rounds, but it is something Lebanon head coach Aleksandar Ilic is not focusing on. 

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“It is too early to think about that [reaching the final]. I have already said our primary objective is to get experience from the tournament. We will focus on getting the team better in the tournament… there are still some games left to play. That will decide who is going to win,” Ilic told the media after the match. 

The Tale of two halves

Despite Lebanon dictating the overall tempo of the match, Bangladesh was still posing the occasional threat in the first-half. In the second-half, except for Foysal Ahmad Fahim’s one-on-one miss in the 60th minute, Bangladesh looked pale compared to the effort it put in the first 45. 

“The first-half was difficult for us, but I gave chances to a lot of players who didn’t start for us in the past. Second-half, we got a lot of our main players on the pitch. We still created a lot of chances but did not score as many.”

Fatigue creeping in

Throwing light on his team selection, where he decided to leave a lot of starting players on the bench, Ilic said it was more of a precautionary move than a tactical one. 

“We have been playing a lot of matches. We played three matches in the other tournament [Intercontinental Cup] in India and got a gap of just four days before this one started. My main idea was to rest some of my players.”

The Maatouk factor

Hassan Maatouk, one of Lebanon’s most crucial players was left on the bench with the primary aim of getting some rest. But with the match being goalless, Ilic called on his services and put him on a half-time substitute. 

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Maatouk did not take much time to impact the game. In the 55th minute, he came close to scoring after being set up by Khalil Bader. But a wayward effort sent the ball flying above the crossbar. 

In the 79th minute, Maatouk opened the scoring from a successful counter-attack involving himself and Karim Darwich. Apart from giving his team the lead, he was a constant thread in the final third. 

“Maatouk is one of our best players. His decisions are always dangerous on the opponent team. He is 35 years old, but he is doing a fantastic job for the national team. Today also, he proved himself. Most of our attacks have come through him, and he is doing very well,” Ilic said. 

Rankings are not absolute

Bangladesh did threaten the Lebanon defence in patches throughout the game, contrary to the general expectation that the 99nd-ranked Lebanon will whitewash the 192nd-ranked Bangladesh. Ilic, however, views it differently. 

“Asian football is on the rise. Right now, every team is focused on improving their quality and reflecting that on the results… Yes, there is a big difference in terms of rankings, but that does not always matter. It was a difficult match against Bangladesh today. Defensively, they were very solid. In the first-half, we did not find a lot of chances and didn’t have many options. In the second-half, we took our chances and scored the goals,”

Lebanon plays its next Group B fixture against Bhutan on Sunday, June 25.  

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