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Road to China 2019: Can Lebanon clinch their World Cup berth at home?
BEIRUT (FIBA Basketblall World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers) - Lebanon have their backs against the wall entering the final Asian Qualifiers window, but if they can play true to their potential, they have a strong shot of making it.
In this first of a five-part series, we take a look at the five remaining FIBA Asia teams who can still qualify to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019, beginning with the Cedars of Lebanon.
Lebanon are currently at 4th position in Group E behind already qualified World Cup teams New Zealand and Korea and World Cup hosts China. They will host New Zealand and Korea in the final window, playing them at Nouhad Nawfal Sports Complex in Zouk Mikael.
Lebanon need to win both to end up with 8 wins to give themselves the best chance to qualify to the World Cup, and those will be crucial since Jordan hold the tiebreaker against them should the Cedars and Falcons find themselves with identical win-loss records by the end of the sixth window.
Lebanon at the FIBAWC
The Cedars were a powerhouse early in the new millennium, qualifying to the World Cup three straight times in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Their best showing was in Japan 2006, where they won 2 of their 5 games, narrowly missing the Quarter-Finals on point differential. That was the year Lebanon had huge wins over Venezuela and - hold your drinks - France. They finished 17th overall and were able to qualify again in 2010, though they finished at the 20th spot in Turkey.
Lebanese star point guard Wael Arakji:
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One guy that Lebanese fans are pumped to see in the final window is star floor general Wael Arakji, who will make his comeback after nearly a year of sitting on the sidelines due to an ACL injury. Naturally, the rising star cannot wait to don the national colors again.
"I'm very excited to be back with my national team," he said. "I've been away for a while, and I'm ready to give my 200% to help the team reach our goal."
Arakji knows the team have given their best so far, but he also knows they need to raise their level even more if they are to punch their World Cup tickets.
"We should definitely fight more and give our all in these 2 decisive games," he said. "We need to forget about everything that happened before - those don't matter anymore - and focus on these 2 games and play them as if they were our last."
Of course, one thing he knows will work in their favor is playing on home soil again. He expects the Lebanese faithful to come out in full force, and the Cedars stand to benefit big time.
"I expect a full house, and I'm sure the Lebanese fans will be behind the team to give us full support and motivation," he explained. "At the end of the day, we all want to qualify to the World Cup as a nation!"
Expert Opinion (Jeff Taylor)
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Lebanon are in an uncomfortable position heading into their last couple of games but that shouldn't surprise anyone. These are, after all, the Asian Qualifiers for the World Cup that we're talking about. If it were easy to clinch a spot in the World Cup, the tournament wouldn't be special. So with that in mind, the Cedars and their passionate fans need to embrace the situation they currently find themselves in and just be ready to play on February 22 when the Tall Blacks come to town.
It's important first to know, however, that China will not figure in the final standings so Lebanon, who currently appear as the fourth-place team in Group E, are effectively in third place heading into the last window while Jordan are a game behind them in fourth. China is removed from the standings since they qualify as the host nation.
The New Zealanders, like the Australians, have raised the bar in Asia. They have an incredible national team setup that on the surface looks as if it always overachieves. This is not a terrible match-up for the Cedars, though, especially when you consider how close the recent encounters were between the countries. Lebanon lost both, the first with the Fadi El Khatib and the second without the great who retired from international basketball after the FIBA Asia Cup 2017. The return of Arakji should be a boost but more importantly, the crowd should give the team the added lift it must have to be successful, even against a group of Kiwis who love to play in big-game atmospheres. Can you imagine the atmosphere in Lebanon when they host New Zealand.
One area where New Zealand have been much better in the two most recent meetings has been the boards. Lebanon must do a better job on the glass at both ends of the floor. New Zealand had 26 offensive rebounds in the last meeting. They scored 15 second chance points. One other cause for hope for Lebanon in this game will be the free-throw line. Had they not shot a very poor 59 percent (13 of 22) in the first meeting, well, you get the picture. Lebanon could have and arguably should have won were it not for their struggles at the charity stripe.
Korea are a much more familiar and arguably awkward foe for Lebanon. The Cedars held their own the first time before falling, 84-71. They punished Lebanon nearly every time they turned it over, scoring 22 points off those miscues. This is an area where Lebanon can, and must be better. What will be difficult for Lebanon will be to contain the Korean shooters from deep. They drilled 10 of 20 3-pointers in the first encounter. Korea are not unbeatable. It may help Lebanon that both countries could lack a sense of urgency since they have already clinched spots in next year's tournament. I like Lebanon's chances of getting at least one win, and if Jordan lose one of their games, then it's going to be a very happy time for the Cedars.