Lebanon edges India to secure Bronze medal of 2023 King’s Cup
An incredible 77th-minute bicycle kick from the Lebanese central defender Kassem El Zein kept the Cedars on the winning side of the crushing 1-0 encounter. The Blue Tigers played their hearts out on a rainy evening at Chiang Mai’s 700th Anniversary Stadium but eventually finished fourth for the first time in the competition’s history.
The Indian gaffer Igor Stimac named only two changes in his starting lineup rewarding the prodigious right-back Asish Rai with his international debut. Lallianzuala Chhangte who scored the winning goal against Lebanon in the 2023 Intercontinental Cup finals also returned to the battlefield replacing Ashique Kuruniyan.
Meanwhile, the Cedars made hefty changes in their starting XI as a consequence of their semi-final defeat at the hands of Thailand. Lebanon’s captain and most-capped player Hassan Maatouk was among the players who were left out on the substitute bench of the Red and Whites.
Anirudh Thapa, wearing away orange colors took the first kick of the game marching from left to right against the Central Asian rivals who were donning all-white kits. Lebanon adopted an aggressive approach in the initial minutes of the play with the ultimate aim of getting an early breakthrough and thus dominated the ball possession. India bravely replied to the opposition attacks by keeping the defensive line high and turning down the moves without letting the Cedars enter dangerous areas.
The Blue Tigers steadily took control of the game in their hand and started knitting attacking moves, having the lone striker Manvir Singh as the focal point. They came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 12th minute when Naorem Mahesh’s dazzling aerial cross from the left wing found Sahal Abdul Samad in front of the goal but the Indian playmaker couldn’t keep his header on target.
The referee also did not hesitate to take out yellow cards early as we saw India’s Rai and two Lebanese knights, skipper Mohamad Haider and Ali Tneich getting booked inside the first 30 minutes. Haider took a forgettable target-less free-kick which summed up their offensive performance throughout the first-half action. Both of these combatants pushed for the half-time break as the third-place face-off headed into the second half at a scoreline of 0-0.
Stimac came up with two changes after the break to showcase his attacking intent by bringing in Brandon Fernandes and Nikhil Poojary in place of Thapa and Rai.
Despite the constant warnings by the referee, the Cedars continued to violate the play with inappropriate fouls which resulted in many Indian players struggling to keep up with the rhythm. The attacking unit’s incapability to make progressive moves finally forced Aleksandar Ilic to make a double-change in the 60th minute and subbed out Jradi and Moughrabi to add a fresh pair of legs on the field.
The Indian guardian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu remained invisible till the moment but also looked rough at the same time and almost botched up in the 64th minute due to miscommunication with his fellow defender Akash Mishra.
A major twist in the tale finally came in the 77th minute when Lebanon moved the scoreline to 1-0 through a successful corner kick by Kassem El Zein. Sandhu daunted the first attempt on a corner kick taken by Maher Sabra but couldn’t replicate it a second later courtesy of the acrobatic bicycle kick by El Zein. It was also the first goal conceded by the Indian defense from open play in this edition of the King’s Cup.
After the completion of the 90-minute regulation period, seven minutes of stoppage time was added to the game offering India a final opportunity to find the equalizer. However, the South Asian giants could not capitalize as the Lebanese Whites managed to defend their lead and secured their second bronze medal in this competition.
After a winless run against the Blue Tigers in 2023, Lebanon finally registered their first victory over their counterparts and had the last laugh in this igniting rivalry between two Asian nations. The offensive unit of the Cedars could not live up to the expectations but the excellence of defense and a clutch goal played a pivotal role in the triumph.
India showcased dominance throughout the gameplay but the high-profile attacking unit still couldn’t find the breakthrough against the Central Asian defense. In the post-match presentation, Sandesh Jhingan, the stand-in skipper of the Blues questioned the refereeing standards of the tournament and his frustration of not winning a single game in the tournament despite playing well was quite evident.
Meanwhile, the final between Iraq and Thailand went to penalties after the two sides were locked 2-2 after 90 minutes of action and Iraq once again trumped on penalties in this edition of the tournament winning 5-4 and lifting the trophy for the first time in front of the Thai fans.