JEDDAH: With Saudi Arabia’s place at the World Cup finals in Qatar already secured, the fans came to celebrate on Tuesday and the players responded by finishing their qualification campaign on a high in Jeddah.
They defeated Australia 1-0 to take top spot in Group B, with Salem Al-Dawsari’s decisive second-half penalty livening up a match that had been robbed of its expected intensity, given that there was little riding on the game.
Nonetheless, it was a deserved win for the hosts, who finished the group with 23 points from 10 games, one point ahead of Japan. It marked the end of a long qualification journey that began in 2019 but the Green Falcons have improved along the way and few could argue that they do not deserve to progress as group winners to a sixth World Cup finals.
With the home team already through and Australia guaranteed third place, and the prospect of a play-off against the UAE in June, the atmosphere at King Abdullah Sports City was more celebratory than competitively hostile.
Despite the pre-match fighting talk from coach Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia played the first half with exactly the urgency you might expect from a team that had already qualified. Still, they enjoyed most of the possession, although the visitors had the greater number of chances.
Al-Dawsari had the first attempt on goal, after eight minutes, cutting in from the left to send a looping shot over Mat Ryan’s goal. For much of the rest of the half, however, it was the Aussies who were knocking at the door.
Shortly after Al-Dawsari’s attempt, Awer Mabil met Martin Boyle’s low cross from the right but the shot rolled just wide of the right-hand goalpost, with keeper Mohammed Al-Owais beaten. This set the scene for a period of pressure from the visitors, who got themselves into some good positions in the ensuing minutes without quite managing to create clear-cut openings.
However, Trent Sainsbury headed just over from a deep free-kick after 26 minutes and, soon after, Boyle, who recently joined Saudi Pro League club Al-Faisaly, pulled a shot from the right side of the area across the face of goal.
Then, five minutes before the break, came the major talking point of the first half. The busy Boyle ran onto a through ball from inside the Australia half to find acres of space and round the goalkeeper. Although he rolled the ball home, the assistant referee quickly raised his flag and then slowly — after a wait of five minutes, in fact — the goal was ruled out after a review by the video assistant referee, much to the frustration of coach Graham Arnold.
There was a little more energy on display after the break, as Saudi Arabia started to turn the screw. Mohammed Kanno’s looping header dropped just over the Australian crossbar and then there was a quality passage of play as Mabil moved away from Hassan Al-Tambakti to unleash a fierce shot from the edge of the area. A diving Al-Owais had to move quickly to tip the ball over the bar.
Just after the hour, everything changed when James Jeggo dragged Sami Al-Najei’s leg in the area and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Up stepped Al-Dawsari to send Ryan the wrong way with a low shot.
This breakthrough spurred Saudi Arabia on. With 13 minutes remaining, Ryan was forced to pull off a fine save to deny Al-Dawsari’s fierce shot from close range. He then made another stop, this time from Firas Al-Buraikan.
In the end it might not have been the most exciting of qualifiers but it was another clean sheet for the Saudis and another scalp taken from a top Asian federation nation. Finishing top of a tough group, above Japan, is a fine achievement and the prefect way to begin the final preparations for the World Cup.
At full time the celebrations by the players and coaching staff began in earnest on the Jeddah turf. They were a long time coming and richly deserved.