Rising expectation after an eventually dominant World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign has plateaued in the wake of a demanding group-stage draw and mixed friendly results. Saudi Arabia were Asia’s success story in the third qualifying round, topping a tough pool while successfully developing their next generation. Reality bit, however, in the aftermath with four winless friendlies versus opposition drawn from the Americas (June’s 1-0 defeats to Colombia and Venezuela, plus September’s goalless stalemates with Ecuador and United States).
These latter scorelines and an exacting draw which has pitted the Green Falcons versus Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Robert Lewandowski’s Poland and perennial dark horses Mexico has not, however, tempered head coach Hervé Renard’s belief. “Even though we are in a tough group, you have to be ambitious,” he told Fifa.com ahead of a second successive World Cup, having previously guided Morocco in Russia. “Going to the World Cup without ambition is pointless. We have to push ourselves, believe we have a chance and push ourselves to the limit.”
The debonair Renard – he of Africa Cup of Nations-winning fame with Zambia and Ivory Coast, plus an incongruous prior stint at Cambridge United – tweaked his tactics slightly for these warm-ups, going from the established 4-2-3-1 utilised competitively to a 4-3-3. Energy, injury permitting, should come from exceptional full-backs Yasser Al Shahrani and Sultan Al Ghanam, midfield control from Al Hilal icon Salman Al Faraj and inspiration from exceptional winger Salem Al Dawsari. Al Nassr magician Sami Al Najei is the squad’s wildcard. There is talent aplenty and belief a repetition of the lionised run to the knockouts at the 1994 World Cup is achievable. Knocks must be shaken off for this to happen by all of the above-mentioned performers – with particular emphasis on Al Dawsari’s condition – during a training camp across the border in Abu Dhabi, featuring five friendlies.
Coach: Hervé Renard’s impressive achievements in Africa made him the man chosen to establish order within Saudi ranks after Juan Antonio Pizzi’s underachievement at the 2018 World Cup and the Asian Cup the following year. A slow start – headlined by September 2019’s rollercoaster 2-2 qualifying draw versus Yemen – made way for punishing consistency in a consummate third round. Renard’s side topped Group B ahead of Japan and Australia, while blooding youngsters such as Abdulelah Al Amri, Abdulelah Al Malki, Firas Al Buraikan and Al Najei. The Frenchman’s regular presence in Roshn Saudi League stands and clear development on the pitch makes the nation feel they are in safe hands.
Star Player: Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal). ‘The Tornado’ is expected to leave a trail of devastation in Group C, recovery from appendix surgery permitting. He has built on the winner against Egypt at the 2018 World Cup, netting regularly at global and continental tournaments. The 31-year-old’s acumen inspired former Al Hilal team-mate Bafetimbi Gomis to tweet a picture of them together after October 2021’s iconic AFC Champions League display versus Al Nass, with the gushing caption: “A photo very representative of the admiration I have for him. The best Asian player.”
Unsung Hero: Saleh Al Shehri (Al Hilal). Much has changed since the unsatisfactory outing at the World Cup four years ago. That is, however, apart from up front, where uncertainty still reigns. Different camps are pressing for on-song Al Fateh striker Al Buraikan and Hilal’s Saleh Al Shehri. It is the former who is expected to get the nod versus Argentina, but don’t discount the latter’s role off the bench. Al Shehri is an unselfish performer and underrated finisher, whose “perma-sub” role at Hilal deflects attention. An impressive seven goals in 13 qualifying appearances tells its own story, including key strikes versus Oman, Vietnam and China.
Probable line-up, 4-3-3 – Al Owais – Al Ghanam, Al Amri, Al Bulaihi, Al Shahrani – Al Najei, Sharahili, Al Faraj – S. Al Dawsari, Al Buraikan, Bahebri