SAUDI ARABIA – Saudi Arabia still face uphill battle

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Saudi Arabia return for a second consecutive appearance at the World Cup and their sixth in total, still looking to match or surpass the achievements on their debut. In the United States in 1994, the Gulf state advanced to the last 16 having defeated Morocco and Belgium, the second win coming thanks to Saeed Al Owairan’s slaloming individual goal.

How they qualified

Herve Renard’s side topped Group B of the final round of Asia’s preliminaries to book their spot at the World Cup, finishing one point clear of Japan. Four wins in their first four games, including a 1-0 victory over the Japanese, set the Saudis on the way to Qatar despite a dip in form in the latter stages of qualifying.

Form guide

The Saudis have won just one of their most recent friendly games, losing 1-0 against Colombia and Venezuela before sharing 0-0 draws with Ecuador and the US in September. They defeated North Macedonia 1-0 in late October before drawing with Albania and Honduras.

Renard provides stability but Saudis still face uphill battle

The build-up to Saudi Arabia’s sixth World Cup has been marked by an uncharacteristic lack of drama amid the stability brought to the national team by the calm coaching of Herve Renard.

Previous preparations have seen players forced to adjust to new coaching regimes installed in the months leading up to the finals, but in Renard the Saudis have found a manager who has brought a level-headed approach to their often chaotic environs.

The Frenchman, who took over from Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi in 2019, steered the Saudis through Asia’s preliminaries with relative comfort, his team picking up six wins in their first seven games in the final phase before losing to Japan.

By then Renard’s side had put themselves on the cusp of a place at the finals, which was duly delivered with the Saudis winning their qualification group with that defeat against the Japanese being their only the loss in 10 games.

Renard’s squad, like those of the majority of his predecessors, is entirely home-based, with the financial clout of the Saudi Pro League ensuring few of the country’s leading players show any desire to venture overseas.

Four-time Asian Champions League winners Al Hilal dominate the squad, with players who have claimed two of the last three continental club titles featuring heavily alongside those from cross-Riyadh rivals Al Nassr.

Saudi Arabia have a dismal track record in their opening games in World Cups and many in Renard’s squad will still be haunted by the 5-0 thrashing they suffered at the hands of 2018 hosts Russia.

It followed a pattern of poor starts which includes an 8-0 pummeling by Germany in 2002 in a run that has never seen Saudi Arabia win their opening game of a World Cup.

The fact that they kick off their 2022 campaign against Lionel Messi’s Argentina will trigger expectations of another heavy loss although Renard has been working hard on giving his side greater defensive solidity.

The Saudis have not conceded in either of their last two friendly matches, but that solidity has come at the cost of goals with both of those matches ending in 0-0 draws.

The World Cup’s proximity to Saudi Arabia, Qatar is perched on a peninsula beside the Gulf state will at least ensure Renard and his team have considerable backing from their travelling supporters.

But it is unlikely that will be enough to prevent another early World Cup exit.

Team announced : 

Mohamed Al-Owais, Nawaf Al-Aqidi, Mohamed Al-Yami , Yasser Al-Shahrani, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Abdulelah Al-Amri, Abdullah Madu, Hassan Tambakti, Sultan Al-Ghanam, Mohammed Al-Breik, Saud Abdulhamid , Salman Al-Faraj, Riyadh Sharahili, Ali Al-Hassan, Mohamed Kanno, Abdulelah Al-Malki, Sami Al-Najei, Abdullah Otayf, Nasser Al-Dawsari, Abdulrahman Al-Aboud, Salem Al-Dawsari, Hattan Bahebri , Fahad Al-Muwallad, Haitham Asiri, Saleh Al-Shehri and Firas Al-Buraikan