Saudi Arabia: 2018 World Cup Preview

Saudi Arabia, placed in group A alongside hosts Russia, two-time champions Uruguay, and another ambitious middle-eastern country Egypt, is a team nobody should underestimate.

Ranked 67th in the official FIFA ranking, Saudi Arabia are perhaps one of the strongest football forces in Asia, alongside Japan, Iran, and South Korea.
According to FIFA, Saudi Arabia has only appeared 4 times in the FIFA World Cup. Their first ever appearance was in 1994, where they also set their best ever World Cup record by reaching the Round of 16, before being knocked out of the competition by Sweden.
Their last appearance in the World Cup, however, was 12 years ago, in 2006 where they didn’t manage to get past the group stage.
Now, led by star man Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, The Green Falcons hope to be able to stun their opponents this time and manage to break their World Cup record.

Road to Russia

The road to Russia for Saudi Arabia was somewhat smooth, though a bit bumpy at times, but they were able to qualify for the World Cup with perhaps rather eye-catching statistics actually.
The Green Falcons received an automatic qualification to the second round of the FIFA World Cup Qualification for the Asian region as they were placed 11th out of 34th in the AFC rankings.
Bert van Marwijk’s team were placed in group A for the second round of the qualification alongside UAE, Palestine, Malaysia, and Timor Leste. They face no problem at all as they managed to top the table and secure a move to the next round while remaining unbeaten with a record of six wins and two draws. Perhaps their most memorable win was their 10-0 victory against Timor Leste away from home where Mohammad Al-Sahlawi managed to bag five goals in the match.
Saudi Arabia advanced to the third round of the qualification and were placed in group B with teams like Japan, Australia, UAE, Iraq, and Thailand.
Things probably got a lot harder for van Marwijk and his boys as they only edged through the group with a dramatic 1-0 win against Japan at home to secure qualification. Saudi Arabia and Australia actually have accumulated the same amount of points but it is Saudi Arabia who earned the qualification due to superior goal difference.
Now that they have qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia with a new name as their coach, they are perhaps not a team many would really pay attention to but who knows what kind of surprise Juan Antonio Pizzi would be packing in Russia next week?

Style of Play

With Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia usually plays with either 4-3-3 offensive or 4-2-3-1, although Pizzi sometimes employs a 4-5-1 flat instead. They like to outnumber the opposition in the defence and then launch a quickfire counter-attack. Mohammed Al-Owais is their main goalkeeper and could start throughout most of the World Cup matches.
The defensive four often consists of Omar and Osama Hawsawi as the centre-back duet and Yasir Al-Shahrani and Mansour Althaqfi Al-Harbi as the right-back and left-back respectively. They have been pretty strong and consistent but they are, so far from what I’ve seen, pretty weak in aerial duels. They seem to be struggling against teams who have strong and towering strikers and teams who like to press high up on the pitch.
The midfield, commanded by Abdullah Otayf, has also been impressive throughout the World Cup Qualification as they have been able to break down the opposition’s attacks, distribute the ball and keep possession without any problems.
The attack is filled with pacey and agile forwards like Fahad Al-Muwallad, Yahya Al-Shehri, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Salem Al-Dawsari. Their pace is always a nightmare when they’re putting pressure on the opposition’s defence or when they’re countering. But there is still a lot to be improved in terms of finishing if they want to pose a serious threat in the final third during the World Cup.

Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Juan Antonio Pizzi was appointed as the head coach of the Saudi Arabia national team on 28 November 2017. The Spanish tactician was previously at the helm of the Chile national team before he was sacked after La Roja failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, despite that, he was also responsible for Chile winning the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
Many Saudi Arabian fans hope that the Argentinian-born coach could bring their national team to the latter stages of the World Cup if possible, but getting beyond the Round of 16 would already be very pleasing for them.

Key Player: Mohammad Al Sahlawi

Mohammad Al-Sahlawi was in such incredible form in the World Cup Qualifiers, scoring 16 goals to finish as the joint-top scorer alongside Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and UAE’s Ahmed Khalil. He is pacey, agile, and skilful. His touch is strong but his technique when striking the ball is extremely dangerous.
The 31-year-old striker, who is currently plying his trade at Al-Nasr Riyadh, is in stellar form both for his club and country as he managed to bag double figures for both teams. This particular form subsequently earned him a call from Manchester United who have offered him a trial where he would also spend three weeks of training. Though this arrangement is said to be for commercial purposes, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t deserve it.
Al-Sahlawi needs to up his game for the World Cup though, as he clearly will be facing a different level of football than the one he experienced in Saudi Professional League or in Asia.
The 177 cm tall striker was a regular under coach Bert van Marwijk, but lately fell out of favour under coach Juan Antonio Pizzi which is perhaps a bit confusing considering his impressive statistics and proven ability.
Some other players worth mentioning are wingers Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari, and Yahya Al-Shehri who are all currently on loan at Spanish clubs Levante, Villareal, and Leganes respectively. All of them have explosive pace and proper skills to be able to beat their man and pose a threat to the opposition’s defence.

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