Kuala Lumpur: Saudi Arabia will be the first Asian nation to play in a FIFA World Cup opening match when they face Russia on June 14 and, despite the absence of star player Nawaf Al Abed, there is plenty of quality in the side.
A turbulent nine-month spell since they secured FIFA World Cup qualification in September saw Saudi Arabia part ways with Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, appoint former UAE boss Edgardo Bauza, only to dismiss him only two month later and bring Juan Antonio Pizzi.
Pizzi has since gone on to establish a new tactical identity for the team; one that emphasises the value of pressing high up the pitch and retaining possession for extended period. Whether the six months period since he effectively took over is enough for the players to fully adapt to his ways is arguably the biggest question for the Green Falcons ahead of the FIFA World Cup.
How They Got There
The margins were fine in Group B of the Asian qualifiers as Saudi Arabia edged out Australia to the second World Cup spot by virtue of a superior goal difference. The Green Falcons scored a goal more and conceded one less than the Socceroos to join Japan in Russia 2018.
Van Marwijk’s men were beaten by his currents employers 3-2 on Matchday Eight in Adelaide, setting up an exciting race as the two sides were locked at 16 points with two games to play. Both teams succumbed to away defeats in the penultimate round, Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 to UAE and Australia falling 2-0 in Japan.
This meant the Saudis had to better or match Australia’s score on the final matchday to reach the FIFA World Cup, which they did, overcoming the Samurai Blue 1-0 in Jeddah as the Socceroos beat Thailand 2-1 in Melbourne.
Fahad Al Muwallad – The pacey winger came off the bench to score the winner against Japan and send Saudi Arabia into the Finals. In Russia, he will be a key attacking outlet whether starting or as an impact sub.
Yasser Al Shahrani – Pizzi has included only three full-backs in his 23-man squad meaning Al Shahrani’s versatility in playing on either flank becomes even more important for Saudi Arabia.
Osama Hawsawi – The skipper leads from the back, and his man-marking abilities earned him the nickname “Mr Handcuffs”. At 34 years of age, he will have to use his experience to make up for lost pace.