Hilal Alhelwe's strike earned Lebanon a 1-0 win over Djibouti and a place in the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 main draw Wednesday. It was far from an easy win for Lebanon, who despite being 90 places above Djibouti in the world rankings, failed to break down their opponents at the Khalifa International Stadium.
But Alhelwe's moment of brilliance in the 47th minute saved Lebanon the blushes as they joined Algeria, Egypt and Libya in Group D for Arab world’s football showpiece event later this year.
Djibouti, ranked 183rd to Lebanon’s 90, played with a deep defence and frustrated their rivals for a large part. But Lebanon, who are on a high after reaching the next round of World Cup qualifying recently, grew in strength as the game grew on and their experience prevailed in the end.
This inter-continental clash started with Lebanon enjoying the lion's share of possession with the Asian side’s first chance arriving in the 20th minute. After Nour Mansour’s through ball found Mohamed Haidar, the latter charged towards the Djibouti box but goalkeeper Mbonihankuye Innocent was quick to spot the danger and blocked the shot.
At the other end, Djibouti had a decent chance but Temidayo Samuel’s cut back was shot wide by Mahamoud Doualeh with both teams locked goalless at half-time.
After the break, Lebanon came back with more intent and took the lead in the 47th minute. After Innocent gave possession with his goal kick, Mohamed Haidar picked out Alhelwe with a clever chip with the striker then controlling the ball superbly before slamming into the net. Alhelwe’s ninth goal for his country gave Lebanon the momentum and they created more chances thereafter but failed with finished touches.
On the counter, Djibouti threatened a couple of times with forward Mahabeh Mahdi coming the closest but was denied by goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil. Innocent then made some smart saves to keep Djibouti in the game, but the Africans could not find the equaliser.
Lebanon join Sudan, Oman, Jordan and Mauritania from the play-off matches to have qualified for the Arab Cup main draw. The preliminary round will be completed with two matches, the first between Palestine and Comoros Thursday, and the second between Bahrain against Kuwait Friday.
Known as the Shoremen of the Red Sea, Djibouti will now shift their attention to World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifying. Following a two-leg win over Eswatini in the first round of African zone qualifying, Djibouti will continue their World Cup journey in the second round group stage versus Algeria, Burkina Faso and Niger later this year. Returning to Qatar next year would also make up for the disappointment of an early qualifying exit for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations back in October 2019.