With three games remaining in the third round of World Cup 2022 qualifying in Asia, both Lebanon and Iraq find themselves with an outside chance at a spot for a playoff at best when the two sides meet at Saida Municipal Stadium in Sidon on Tuesday.
The Cedars have lost their last three qualifiers and sit four points behind the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a place in the fourth round, while the Lions of Mesopotamia are still without a win in this group phase, after dropping a 1-0 decision to their arch-rivals Iran.
They have made some valiant efforts in this qualification round, but unfortunately for the Lebanese, more often than not, this side have fallen to superior opponents.
Ivan Hasek has rarely seen his players maintain possession for long stretches of a game, though they are well drilled, disciplined, and capable of hanging back to cover space.
That approach has enabled them to stay in most of their third-round encounters, but it is difficult to come away with wins when you cannot fire more than one or two efforts on goal or when you have the ball less than 30% of the time as they did against South Korea earlier this week.
While it remains a long shot for them to keep their World Cup dream alive, there is some hope that perhaps they can win their remaining games, seeing as their final three fixtures are versus teams that they have fared well against in prior meetings, drawing Iraq 0-0, beating Syria 3-2 and narrowly losing 2-1 against Team Melli.
This side can frustrate you because of how defensive they are, and while they do not generate many chances, when The Cedars are able to settle themselves and keep a match scoreless in the early stages, it can become increasingly difficult to break them down.
As focused and positionally sound as they may be for long stretches of a match, Lebanon tend to suffer a lapse or two in concentration at the most inopportune time, conceding two injury-time goals to the Iranians after being up 1-0 in their November fixture, while they gave away a penalty late in the second and first half respectively, falling to the UAE and the Koreans, both times by a 1-0 score.
The World Cup aspirations of Zeljko Petrovic and Iraq are fading fast, as The Lions of Mesopotamia will need a lot of things to go their way to qualify for the finals for the first time since 1986.
On Thursday, their one-goal defeat was rather flattering, given the number of quality scoring opportunities that they conceded to their Middle Eastern rivals as more often than not, the Iraqis were bailed out by some excellent goalkeeping from Fahad Talib.
Iraq made it into this stage of qualifying thanks to a little good fortune, as an own goal from Fung Hing Wa secured them three points against Hong Kong in the previous qualifying phase, but it appears as though their luck is running out after being dominated in their last two matches, both of which resulted in defeats to South Korea (3-0) and Iran.
This team's defending has been anything but top class of late, conceding 10 times so far in this round, after only allowing four in round number two.
It does not help that two of their last three encounters will be on the road, where this side have had a ton of problems in the final third, going goalless in four of their previous five away matches played in all competitions.
It is nearing must-win time for Iraq, and even though things are not looking great, they have had plenty of success in prior meetings versus the Lebanese, winning 10 of their 17 encounters against them, while losing only once.
Lebanon goalkeeper Mostafa Matar has kept two clean sheets in this qualification round, including against Iraq in October when his back four of Kassem El Zein, Joan Oumari, Robert Alexander Melki and Abbas Assi only allowed one shot on target.
Mohamad Kdouh and Soony Saad are the only players to have scored for them in their last four games, as Kdouh notched a brace in their victory over Syria, while Saad put home the winner on that occasion and also found the back of the net against the Iranians.
Their captain Hassan Maatouk needs only two more appearances to reach 100 for his country, Hilal El-Helwe can hit double digits in international goals should he find the back of the net on Tuesday, while Fadel Antar collected his fourth cap earlier this week as he continues to search for his first goal with the national team.
Amir Al-Ammari scored from the penalty spot in their 1-1 tie versus Syria back in November, while the only other goal by an Iraqi player came from Aymen Hussein in a 2-2 draw with the UAE, as the other tally resulted from an own goal by Mohammed Al-Attas.
Teenager Zidane Iqbal, who played his first game for Manchester United last month in a Champions League fixture versus Young Boys, made his international debut for Iraq on Thursday, replacing Hassan Raed for the final eight minutes plus injury time.
Igbal is one of five Iraqi players who feature for European clubs, as Mohanad Jeahze and Al-Ammari play in Sweden for Hammarby IF and IFK Goteborg respectively, while Frans Putros applies his trade with Danish side Viborg FF and Ali Al-Hamadi is a member of Wycombe Wanderers in League One in England.
Lebanon possible starting lineup:
Matar; Assi, Alexander Melki, Oumari, Sabra, El Zein; Ayoub, Felix Melki, Dhaini, Maatouk; Kdouh
Iraq possible starting lineup:
Talib; Jeahze, Jabbar, Ibrahim, Putros; Abdul-Amir, Ali Abbood; Iqbal, Al-Ammari, Abdul-Karim; Hussein
We say: Lebanon 0-0 Iraq
Lebanon are well-structured and capable of holding teams for long periods of time, but we do not believe that they are able to possess the ball enough to create a sufficient amount of scoring opportunities and earn three points.
Iraq may be a better side than their record currently indicates, however, a lack of quality and experience in the attack has plagued them in this current campaign, and we expect that trend to continue in this match.
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