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Tokyo Olympics – Preview: Saudi Arabia eye winning start against Côte d’Ivoire

Yokohama: Saudi Arabia take on African heavyweights Côte d’Ivoire on Thursday as they return to the men’s football at the Olympic Games after 25 years of absence.

The fixture marks the start of a challenging group for the young Green Falcons who were also pitted against both finalists from Rio 2016 - Brazil and Germany.

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And while the latter two are widely considered the biggest challengers in the group, Saudi Arabia’s Thursday opponents are not to be taken lightly as the Elephants boast in their squad a number of players from Europe’s top clubs, including Manchester United Pair Eric Bailly and Amad Diallo as well as AC Milan midfield enforcer Franck Kessie.

The Ivorians most recent appearance in the competition dates back to 2008 when the side led by Gervinho and Salomon Kalou beat Australia and Serbia to join Argentina in qualifying from Group A into the quarter-finals where they were beaten by eventual silver-medalists Nigeria.

Despite the challenges, Saudi Arabia will be confident having underwent a six-phase preparation programme that saw them train in three different Saudi cities as well as travel to Spain and Romania before being the first men’s football side to arrive in Tokyo ahead of the tournament.

Leading the charge for head coach Saad Al Shehri’s men are the experienced Al Hilal trio Salem Al Dawsari, Salman Al Faraj and Yasser Al Shahrani, who between them have 165 senior caps.

Talent in the Saudi camp is not limited to the overage three, with the likes of winger Abdulrahman Ghareeb, midfielder Mukhtar Ali and full-back Saud Abdulhameed all established at club level and with significant AFC Champions League experience.

Ahead of their first training session in the Japanese capital, Al Shehri reiterated his faith in the whole squad, calling on everyone to give their all on the pitch, while Saudi Football Federation President Yasser Al Misehal expressed his confidence the squad is able to replicate the ‘memories of Bangkok’, where Saudi Arabia won their ticket to Tokyo after reaching the final of the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020.

Côte d’Ivoire v Saudi Arabia
Venue: Yokohama Stadium
Kickoff: 17:30 (UTC+9)

Photo: Saudi Arabian Football Federation

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