Back in the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 2006, Saudi Arabia will be hoping to cause an upset or two in Russia this summer.
Having failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in the past two editions in Brazil and South Africa, Saudi Arabia are back for the 21st edition of the competition and will be hoping to make a strong impression in Russia.
Al Suqour are the lowest ranked of the 32 teams participating in the summer’s extravaganza, placed 67th in FIFA World Rankings, but managed to get through from Group B of the AFC qualifiers, ahead of Australia.
Their best performance in a FIFA World Cup till date remains the round of 16 exit back in 1994, which also happened to be their debut in the tournament. And manager Juan Antonio Pizzi will be hoping to achieve as much, if not more this time out.
Group and Fixtures
Saudi Arabia have been drawn along with hosts Russia in the Group A, along with Uruguay and Egypt, who are the favourites to go through to the next round.
Pizzi’s side will kick the tournament off against Russia on the 14th of June, before facing off against Uruguay on the 20th. They will wind up their group stage campaign against Egypt five days later.
Ahead of the tournament, Pizzi announced a 28-man preliminary squad that will be trimmed down to 23 as per tournament regulations in the coming days. Here’s how the Saudi roster looks at the moment;
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Goalkeepers: Assaf Al-Qarny (Al-Ittihad), Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Ahli), Yasser Al-Musailem (Al-Ahli), Abdullah Al-Mayuf (Al Hilal).
Defenders: Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al-Ahli), Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al Hilal), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al Hilal), Saeed Al-Mowalad (Al-Ahli), Motaz Hawsawi (Al-Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Mohammed Jahfali (Al Hilal), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al Hilal).
Midfielders: Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al-Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al-Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al-Faraj (Al Hilal), Nawaf Al-Abed (Al Hilal), Mohamed Kanno (Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Mohammed Al-Kwikbi (El Ettifaq), Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal), Yehya Al-Shehri (Al Nassr).
Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli).
With an average of over 28 years, this Saudi Arabia team is likely to be one of the oldest teams in the FIFA World Cup this summer. Led by the influential captain and defender Osama Hawsawi, the team will also be relying on the vastly experienced 33-year old midfielder Taiseer Al-Jassim and Yahya Al-Shehri.
The 2014 Asian Player of the Award winner Nasser Al-Shamrani missed out from the squad though, while rookie forward Haroune Camara and veteran midfielder Mohammad Al-Shalhoub also failed to make the cut for the trip to Russia.
The 23-year old Fahad Al-Muwallad is one of the most promising young talents across Asia and will be hoping to make his chance on the big stage count. He has netted 10 goals in 43 appearanecs for the Green Falcons so far in his career.
While they may lack a genuine superstar in their ranks, the Asian nation will be able to count on the goal-scoring prowess of Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who was their main protagonist in the qualifying campaign. The 31-year old netted 16 times for Saudi Arabia during the qualifiers and till date has 28 goals in 38 international caps. He will be the one who is most likely to make a difference for Saudi Arabia once the tournament kicks off.
Juan Antonio Pizzi
The managerial situation with the Saudi Arabian national team has been far from ideal. Having led the team to qualification to Russia, Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk decided to quit in September last year.
In came former Argentina and United Arab Emirates coach Edgardo Bauza, but he lasted just three months and five matches before getting the sack a little while before the draw for the group stages was to take place.
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation then brought in another South American manager in the form of Juan Antonio Pizzi, to steady the ship. The 49-year old tasted a lot of success during his time as the manager of the Chile national team, leading them to the Copa America Centenario triumph in 2016 and the finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia last year.
However, given the limited time he has had with the squad ahead of such a huge tournament, it is going to anything but be smooth sailing for the Argentine.
Pizzi has preferred to use a 4-2-3-1 setup since taking over, ditching the 4-3-3 that was used by Van Marwijk throughout the qualifying campaign. His teams are known to pack the midfield with plenty of bodies, with the three attacking midfielders dropping deep when not in possession to snuff out the opposition.
Yasser Al-Musailem is likely to man the goal for the Green Falcons with the protection of captain Osama Hawsawi and Omar Hawsawi, who has had a brilliant season coming into the tournament, in the centre-back department. They also have solid options in the full-back areas with Yasser Al-Shahrani and Mohammed Al-Breik, both of whom are resilient at the back and can quickly raid up the pitch.
The central midfield will be manned by the experienced Jassim, who has over 130 appearances for the national team. He is likely to be partnered by the 25-year old Abdullah Otayf, who will act as the link between the two halves of the pitch.
Al-Shehri will take over the creative mantle in the No.10 role, while the fleet-footed and pacy Al-Fawallad will take up one of the slots on the wings along with Salem Al- Dawsari and look to cause problems from the wide areas.
Leading the attack for Al Suqour will be Al-Sahlawi and while has proven himself in the qualifiers, it remains to be seen if he will be able to perform at the same level in the main competition.
Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Al-Musailem; Al-Breik, Omar Hawsawi, Osama Hawsawi, Al-Shahrani; Otayf, Al-Jassim; Al-Muwallad, Al-Shehri, Al-Dawsari; Al-Sahlawi
Saudi Arabia will be making their first appearance in the showpiece event in 12 years, but it does seem extremely unlikely that they will be able to better their result from the 2006 edition. Given the instability in the managerial situation coming into the competition and the lack of top level experience within the squad, it would be a miracle if they manage to go through to the next round ahead of either Uruguay or Egypt. At the most, they can hope to avoid a bottom finish in the group.