Bucker puts final touches on team for qualifying

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Lebanon coach Theo Bucker put his players through their paces Wednesday, putting the final touches on his side that will take to the field Sunday in the country’s first ever game in the fourth round of Asian World Cup qualifying.

The national team have been training together for weeks as well as playing international friendlies with Oman, Egypt and Jordan, but the makeup of Bucker’s side Sunday is still surprisingly hard to predict.

With captain Roda Antar and lethal marksman Mahmoud al-Ali both out with long-term injuries, Lebanon are arguably without their two best players – unquestionably Antar is the nation’s best player – leaving Bucker with several key decisions to make.

Auditioning for Antar’s spot in deep midfield alongside Haytham Faour are Mohammad Chammas – who filled in for Antar against the UAE in February – Nader Matar and Abbas Atwi. While Atwi will almost certainly start, he is likely to be deployed further up the field.

Judging by Bucker’s training ground selections, and taking into account Chammas’ lackluster performance against the UAE, Matar looks poised to start in midfield. Bucker has long admired the youngster’s skill and professionalism and will relish the chance to start him in an important game.

While no player can replace Antar’s leadership and impact, Matar can at least replicate his ability to play the simple pass and dictate the tempo of the game.

Further up the field, Bucker was giving nothing away. Ahmad Zreik and Hasan Maatouk, both mainstays during Lebanon’s qualifying journey, should start alongside Atwi in an attacking midfield triumvirate but who replaces Ali as the lone striker is more of a mystery.

Mohammad Ghaddar – back after international exile thanks to a poor performance against Kuwait in November – took his chance to impress against Oman last weekend, scoring a long-range header. In training, however, Bucker experimented with emerging players Hasan Mohammad and Hasan Chayto as well as Akram Moghrabi and Zakaria Charara.

None of the above strikers have the same qualities as Ali, which should force Bucker into a tactical rethink. As it stands, that position is up for grabs.

Training on the disgracefully poorly kept Beirut Municipality pitch, Bucker seems to have comfortably settled on his back four of Ramez Dayoub, Youssef Mohammad, Bilal Najjarrine and Walid Ismael.

The goalkeeper spot is 50/50 between the popular but limited Ziad Samad and the sound Abbas Hasan, although whether Bucker has forgiven Hasan for his horrible error against the UAE in February is unknown.

The press was banned from speaking to the players and management before the match, on the orders of LFA president Hasham Haidar.

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