By Ben Somerford | Asian Football Editor
The attention of the footballing world will switch to Poland and Ukraine on Friday when the 2012 European Championship begins, but there's a romantic little story evolving in Lebanon – who entertain Uzbekistan in Beirut in 2014 World Cup qualifying on Friday - at the same time.
They may be ranked 111th in the world and huge outsiders to qualify for Brazil 2014, but Lebanon are one of the last 10 sides in the running to make the World Cup through Asia. It's the first time the team, affectionately known as the Cedars, have reached the final phase of World Cup qualifying in their history, having gone on a dream run through the second and third rounds where they've punched above their weight and recorded ground-breaking victories over South Korea and Kuwait.
A lot of the credit for Lebanon's remarkable recent achievements must go down to German coach Theo Bucker, who has instilled a method which has utilised his side's strengths and capitalised on his opponents' weaknesses. Whether that approach will have them in the running for World Cup qualification with the stakes much higher in the final phase seems unlikely, but their unbelievable campaign has garnered the parochial support of the nation and it's a story worth telling.
|LEBANON'S PREVIOUS WORLD CUP QUALIFYING CAMPAIGNS|
|2014||Through to fourth round
|2010||Eliminated in third round
|2006||Eliminated in second round|
|2002||Eliminated in first round
|1998||Eliminated in first round
|1994||Eliminated in first round|
There was a real buzz of anticipation about the contest, with many locals seeing the game as a genuine opportunity to get off to a positive start, having previously shocked South Korea as well as UAE in the Lebanese capital. The sense of occasion was heightened even further with fans set to be locked out of the game, until Youth and Sports minister Faisal Karami's decision to reverse a decree to play the game behind closed doors, following Fifa's safety concerns in light of recent unrest in Beirut, sparked by the trouble in neighbouring Syria.
Fifa had feared crowd trouble with travelling fans, with Qatar known as a pro-revolutionary state. However after a vociferous online campaign from Lebanese supporters – combined with the fact Qatar ensured no fans travelled to the game - Karami reversed the initial decision and the Beirut public flocked in huge numbers, providing a wonderful atmosphere. However, they went home disheartened after a display which lacked creativity in the absence of skipper Roda Antar, as Ramez Dayoub's poor backpass led to Qatari striker Sebastian Soria netting the game's only goal.
Bucker's tactical approach has relied on soaking up opposition pressure and then launching counterattacks, particularly utilising wingers Hassan Maatouk and Ahmad Zreik. The opening 25 minutes against Qatar followed this pattern, as the hosts begun cautiously, before coming into the game with Abbas Atwi hitting the woodwork. However genuine chances for both sides were few and far-between, with the eventual winner typically coming from a mistake on 63 minutes.
|"Youssef Mohamad's late miss was greeted with a chorus of boos, and fans begun heading for the exits in their droves such is their visceral support"|
Lebanon's inability to muster up much of a response is what would've left the home fans disheartened and that sentiment was in evidence when defender Youssef Mohamad pushed wide a late chance from close range. The miss was greeted with a chorus of boos, and fans begun heading for the exits in their droves such is their visceral support.
It wasn't the ideal start to the final round qualifying campaign and with key man Antar and striker Mahmoud Al Ali still injured and unlikely to return for this round of qualifiers, a lot of the momentum previously built up by the Cedars has been halted.
Nonetheless, Bucker's approach should offer reason for hope ahead of Friday's qualifier against Uzbekistan, who had coach Vadim Abramov resign from his post this week following Sunday's 1-0 defeat to Iran. The German's method gives his side their best chance of succeeding and if they can learn from the errors made against Qatar, there's every chance they can capitalise on the Uzbeks recent troubles and get the three points the Beirut faithful so desperately wants.