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World Cup history

It’s been 12 years since Saudi Arabia’s last appearance at the FIFA World Cup, which was the last of their four consecutive appearances from 1994 to 2006.

The first of those appearances at USA 1994 was by far their most successful, with wins over Morocco and Belgium helping them to second place in Group F and a spot in the Round of 16, where they fell 3-1 to Sweden.

Following tournaments weren’t as successful, however, with the Green Falcons winless in their last nine matches at the World Cup. The 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea was the nadir, with the embarrassment of the 8-0 loss to Germany in the opening match still lingering to this day. They would leave Japan without scoring a goal and with three losses in as many matches.

Qualifying

There were few surprises when the Green Falcons breezed through the first stage of World Cup qualification, where they were grouped with UAE, Palestine, Malaysia and Timor Leste, without losing a game.

But the final stage of qualifying would always present a tougher challenge, and having been grouped with two of the continent’s heavyweight teams in Australia and Japan, as well as the UAE, coming off the back of their success at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, little was expected of Saudi Arabia and few expected them to be in Russia this year.

There was more than a little luck involved in their first two wins – a 1-0 win over Thailand and 2-1 win over Iraq – with all three goals coming from the penalty spot and all coming after the 80thminute.

But no one in Saudi Arabia cared, and after they earned a valuable point in a come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Australia and followed it up with a 3-0 hammering of the UAE, suddenly there was hope. They now had momentum and belief on their side.

A 2-1 loss to Japan at Saitama Stadium was a mere speedbump, following it up with two more wins against Thailand and Iraq.

Then, with Russia in sight, they got the wobbles.

They travelled to Australia in June 2017 knowing a win could seal their spot, but a Tom Rogic thunderbolt consigned them to a 3-2 loss and when they reconvened in August they suffered another defeat, going down 2-1 to UAE.

What was looking comfortable was now on a knife’s edge, and their hopes of making Russia would come down to the final match at home against Japan, who had already secured qualification.

After a tight and tense first half in Jeddah the breakthrough finally came just after the hour mark when Fahad Al-Muwallad scored just his second goal of the campaign, a goal that ultimately sealed their first qualification in 12 years.

Form

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has certainly left no stone unturned in putting together a comprehensive collection of matches for the team in the lead up to the World Cup, with no fewer than 17 matches being played from September last year right up until the World Cup.

But quantity doesn’t always equal quality, and while there have been wins over European minnows such as Moldova and Latvia, as well as second-string Algerian and Greece sides, in the major international windows against teams of genuine quality they’ve been found wanting.

Losses to Portugal (3-0) and Bulgaria (1-0) in November 2017 were followed in March by a 1-1 draw with Ukraine and 4-0 loss to Belgium. With further warm up matches against Italy and Germany to come, confidence could be low as they head into the tournament.

Coupled with the team form is the individual form of the players, especially after the controversial move to send nine players to Spain on loan, a move that has backfired as the players have, for the most part, spent the entire time on the sidelines losing match conditioning.

Coach

It wouldn’t be Saudi Arabia without a bit of coaching upheaval around a World Cup. Dutchman Bert van Marwijk was regarded as a magician for his job in getting this Saudi side to qualify for the World Cup, but after a disagreement with the SAFF over how to best prepare the team he was shown the door.

In his place came Edgardo Bauza, essentially gifted to the Saudis from their regional ‘brothers’ UAE. But no sooner had he got his feet under the desk he was also out the door.

Finally the SAFF settled on former Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi as their man to take them to the World Cup. The question is whether he can mould this group of players into a team that can hold their own on the international stage.

Key player

The player who makes everything tick for the Green Falcons is undoubtedly Nawaf Al Abed. But just how fit will the Al Hilal playmaker be having been sidelined for the best part of the last five months with injury? When he is fit and firing the 28-year-old is one of the most dangerous players in Asia – silky with the ball at his feet, capable of beating his man and with a keen eye for goal. He scored five of Saudi Arabia’s 17 goals in the final stage of qualifying, and added three assists for good measure. It’s likely Saudi Arabia won’t have a lot of the ball, so they will need to make good use of it when they do and that’s why Nawaf is so important. Let’s hope he can get fit.

Player to watch

As Al Hilal stormed their way to the AFC Champions League final last year one player who stood out was central midfielder Abdullah Otayf (pictured). The unassuming 25-year-old, who likes to fly under the radar and take a back seat to the more fancied members of both the national team and Al Hilal, has a range of passing that would be the envy of most central midfielders. Given how much work he will have to do in Russia, if he can produce the form he’s shown for Al Hilal over the past 12 months, then he could be in for a big tournament.


Categories: Analysis | World Cup | Asia

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