Kuala Lumpur: Back in Asian Qualifiers action for the first time since 2019, and with everything to play for, three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia will be one of this international window’s closely watched sides.
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 run the rule over a fresh-looking Saudi Arabia side who will have everything to play for when they meet Palestine on Tuesday.
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The Asian Qualifiers story so far
A disappointing 2-2 draw against Yemen got the Green Falcons off to a less than ideal start, and things started to look concerning when they were held again, this time by Palestine, in a goalless clash in October 2019.
For that reason, Saudi Arabia’s chances of reaching a second consecutive FIFA World Cup looked to be in genuine distress when they found themselves 2-1 down to Uzbekistan in Tashkent, but goals from Salman Al Faraj and Salem Al Dawsari helped them engineer a miraculous late recovery in a 3-2 win.
Where do they sit in their group?
In arguably the most competitive group to be found anywhere in Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers, Saudi Arabia - while not on top of the standings - appear to be in pole position to advance as group winners,
They sit a point behind Group D leaders Uzbekistan, but hold a game in hand on the Central Asian side, and will go into June’s final batch of fixtures with a two-point lead on top of the table if they can find a way past Palestine on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia – whose 3-0 win against Singapore is their only fixture so far in the group to have been played on home soil - will have the advantage not having to travel for any of their four remaining matches, with Tuesday’s clash at King Saud University Stadium to be followed by three more home games in June.
How ready are they to resume competitive international football?
By current standards, they will feel suitably prepared for the challenge ahead.
Not only did Saudi Arabia face Jamaica in a pair of friendlies in November – avoiding the fate of not appearing at all in 2020 like a long list of other national teams – they also beat Kuwait 1-0 in an international friendly on Thursday.
Additionally, every player in the squad plays their club football in Saudi Arabia, where domestic matches have come thick and fast in the 2020-21 season, with 24 Pro League rounds completed since the season began in October.
“When you don't have a lot of time with players and you don't play a lot of matches, it is difficult to be ready at the right time but we have to be ready for tomorrow’s match," said Saudi Arabia head coach Herve Renard.
What has changed since their last match in November 2019?
Expect to see some new faces.
A number of youngsters have been called up by head coach Hervé Renard, with only three men in the squad – Fahad Al Muwallad, Yasser Al Shahrani and Salem Al Dawsari (pictured below) – boasting more than 50 international caps.
Abdulelah Al Amri scored on debut against Kuwait on Thursday, in a match which also saw Nasser Al Dawsari and Ali Asmari appear for the first time at senior level, but there is also a core of players who, while not being completely new to this stage, are far from veteran internationals.
Hassan Al Tambakti and Ziyad Al Sahafi – the starting central defensive pairing against Kuwait – have only 17 senior caps between them, while the creative Abdulrahman Ghareeb (pictured below) - who impressed at the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 - is one of several other players sitting at around the 10-cap mark.
One thing that is unlikely to change is the tactical approach. Saudi Arabia took on both Jamaica and Kuwait using the same 4-2-3-1 setup that was deployed in all four of their completed Asian Qualifiers matches.
Are there any worries?
Salman Al Faraj, the captain and scorer of two goals in the crucial 3-2 away win against Uzbekistan, will miss the Palestine match having not played since suffering an injury in the Saudi Super Cup in January.
They will also miss the influence of Abdullah Al Hamdan. The 21-year-old is the equal top scorer in the Saudi Pro League and was arguably the team’s standout player in the two matches against Jamaica last November, but a positive COVID-19 test means he will not be part of their bid to climb to the top of Group D until June at the earliest.
“It won't affect the team because this squad has a lot of good players. However, we will miss them because they are both important for us along with Ayman Yahya who is also important. However, we have a very good squad and talented players so everything should be good and we hope to win the match.”
Personnel issues aside, Renard will be eager to see an improved performance in the final third.
Despite a dominance of possession, Saudi Arabia managed to create few clear cut chances against the Kuwaitis and when they did, they were wasteful, with Al Amri’s debut goal the only one of 14 shots to be directed on target.
Palestine have conceded just once in their past five matches, and held the Green Falcons to a scoreless draw in their previous meeting, meaning Saudi Arabia will likely need to be efficient in front of goal if they are to avoid a similar result in Riyadh.
“Our group is tough and when we played in Palestine, it was a very difficult match. If we win the match tomorrow, we will top the group and this is our main target," said Renard.
SAUDI ARABIA v PALESTINE
Venue: King Saud University Stadium, Riyadh
Kick-off: Tuesday, 20:30 (UTC+3)
Photos: Saudi Arabian Football Federation, AFP, AFC
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