Kuala Lumpur: The Asian Qualifiers are back and, after Tajikistan and Mongolia raised the curtain last Thursday, attention now turns to Tuesday’s clashes, including a potentially crucial one between Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
The roads to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ and AFC Asian Cup China 2023™ are open once again but, in the ever-changing world of international football, how clearly will we recognise teams we haven't seen in competitive action for well over a year?
Join the-AFC.com as we preview a Palestinian side who have shown their ability to compete with some of the continent’s top sides, but find themselves in need to be near-perfect at this stage of the Asian Qualifiers if they are to advance to Round 3.
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The Asian Qualifiers story so far
Palestine were among the big winners of the opening Matchday, getting their campaign off to a stunning start with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan, but the good times largely ended there.
They fell to a hugely disappointing loss in Singapore less than a week after their Uzbekistan success, and a creditable goalless draw at home to Saudi Arabia in October was followed by away defeats against Yemen and Uzbekistan.
Where do they sit in their group?
Palestine's tally of four points from five matches has them sitting at the bottom of Group D, but they have quite remarkably earned all of their points against the group's top two sides; Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia.
The relatively even nature of the group means it is far from inconceivable that Palestine could rise to reach the sunnier side of the section, but they essentially have no margin for error remaining, with wins needed not only against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, but in their final fixtures against Singapore and Yemen in June.
“The match is important because it is an official match in the World Cup qualifiers. We need to get the points from the match - whether a point or three - in order to improve our place in the standing and achieve our target of qualifying to the Asian Cup," said Palestine head coach Noureddine Ould Ali.
How ready are they to resume competitive international football?
Palestine have played international football since the pandemic caused delays in the Asian Qualifiers, but not as much as they would have liked.
Attempts to get Ould Ali’s side on the pitch in late 2020, including a planned friendly against Iraq, proved unsuccessful, but a 1-0 win over Kuwait in January means Palestine will come into this week’s clash with at least a small sense of continuity, while the West Bank Premier League is in full swing at club level.
“It was hard to work remotely with the players. The Palestinian FA completed the league last season and this season was organised very well. This helped us to move on and have good hopes for the match tomorrow and the future matches as well.”
What has changed since their last match in November 2019?
Palestine hold the distinction of having won all five of their matches since Group D ties were last played in November 2019, although four of those wins came in the pre-pandemic Bangabandhu Cup, which they won in Bangladesh in January 2020.
Head coach Nourredine Ould Ali (pictured below) retains the position he has held since 2018, but the Palestine side on show in Riyadh is likely to feature several significant differences to the one which began these Asian Qualifiers.
The absence of experienced names like former captain Abdelatif Bahdari and Abdallah Jaber may be among the most glaring changes to the team that lost in Tashkent on Matchday Five, with Yaser Islame and Nazmi Al Badawi the other men from that side who aren’t part of the current squad, but who could return in time for June’s matches.
Are there any worries?
Even beyond the aforementioned quartet, personnel issues are Palestine’s most pressing concern, particularly in attack.
Towering striker Mahmoud Wadi - so impressive in Egyptian football over the last year - will miss out through injury, while another in-form forward, Shehab Qombor, is reportedly unavailable due to illness after making his debut against Kuwait in January.
Oday Dabbagh, one of the scorers in Uzbekistan and a regular provider of attacking impetus both for Palestine and his club side, Al Arabi of Kuwait, will also miss the clash.
“We will miss some players whether due to health conditions or to the lack of match fitness. We will also be missing Oday Al Dabbagh due to the COVID-19 restrictions in Kuwait."
The weight of responsibility in front of goal is almost certain to fall on the shoulders of Saleh Chihadeh. The 26-year-old striker has scored goals for FC Thun in the second tier of Swiss football this season, including three in his last four matches, although he is yet to find the back of the net at senior level for Palestine.
SAUDI ARABIA v PALESTINE
Venue: King Saud University Stadium, Riyadh
Kick-off: Tuesday, 20:30 (UTC+3)
Photos: Palestinian Football Association, AFC
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