RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s sixth World Cup kicks off on Tuesday with probably the hardest opening game the team has ever had.
Few believe the clash with Argentina, a team that has genuine ambitions of lifting the trophy next month, is a chance for three points but for Herve Renard and his players it is an opportunity to show that the Green Falcons have come a long way since 2018 and the 5-0 defeat at the hands of Russia in Moscow.
There was a carnival atmosphere that day at the Luzhniki Stadium as the hosts got ready for a party. The smiles and sun that were there before kickoff were just as strong after with the Russians getting the result of their dreams. The scoreline might have been a bit harsh on Saudi Arabia, but it was a tough day. As was the 8-0 humiliation at the hands of Germany in 2002.
Saudi Arabia have lost four of their five World Cup opening games and have been unlucky to start 2022 with what could be the toughest of all.
But this is a different Saudi Arabia now, certainly to the one that took the field in Russia’s capital. Renard has been in charge for more than three years and there have been some major improvements.
“It now feels like we’ve known each other for years,” the Frenchman said. “But football is like that — when you win games it’s all rosy. However, we should be ready to face tougher tests as it’s easy to lose a string of games, so we must be mentally resilient as well.”
Qatar showed on Sunday, losing 2-0 to Ecuador in what was a disappointing performance, that knowing and spending time with the players is not always enough. The hosts have lacked competitive action but it could be that Saudi Arabia’s impressive qualification campaign will stand them in better stead.
Defensively, Saudi Arabia have become increasingly tight. They conceded 10 goals in 18 qualifiers and since then, 10 friendly games have seen the backline breached just four times. There is going to be serious pressure coming from the South Americans, and it is going to be the toughest test imaginable. Midfielders Abdulelah Al-Malki and Mohamed Kanno are going to have to play the games of their lives to protect the back four and also provide an outlet for under-pressure defenders. The pair, coming back from long-term injury and suspension, have looked good in recent games.
The lessons from Qatar’s opener will not have gone unnoticed. The Maroons struggled with crosses into the area from the kickoff and were lucky that VAR intervened to overrule a third-minute goal. This is an area that Saudi Arabia have been working on and it is likely that it will really be tested by Poland on Saturday, but Argentina certainly also have the players to put in dangerous balls from wide areas.
Qatar were also strangely passive both as a team and individually in what was the biggest game of their lives and allowed Ecuador to take the initiative and control the game physically as well as tactically. And then Saad Al-Sheeb had a poor game. There is not much you can do when your goalkeeper makes mistakes as he did, but at least Saudi’s number one Mohammed Al-Owais has been in fine form.
In short, Qatar froze and Ecuador, who came through a tough South American qualification campaign and have players in the big leagues of Europe, did not. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to follow the example set by their fellow Arab team. The likes of Salman Al-Faraj, Salem Al-Dawsari and others, who have World Cup finals experience and won Asian titles, have to step up. They are experienced big-game players and there are none bigger than this.
Argentina need no introduction. This is the last World Cup for Lionel Messi. Lifting the Copa America, his first major prize with his country, has also lifted some of the pressure on one of the best players the world has ever seen. With Angel Di Maria on the other side of attack, there is real trickery and movement for the Saudi defense to handle, and an impressive mix of youth and experience. There are no real concerns among the South Americans and they feel like a real team. In this aspect at least, Saudi Arabia can more than match the two-time winners.
Losing an opening game heavily can end a tournament almost before it has begun. In 2018, the team performed impressively in Russia after that early loss, with a 1-0 defeat against Uruguay and a win over Egypt, but it was not enough. A better start this time could lead to a better outcome.
There is no pressure on Saudi Arabia to beat Argentina or even draw. Fans would love to see a competitive game where their team gives one of the game’s giants some problems, and gives the millions around the world who are expecting an easy victory for the favorites, reason to rethink.
The objective is to be able to look back without regret and then anything could happen.
“There are no limits in football,” said Renard. “You must make your own luck, leave everything on the pitch, prepare to the best of your ability and eradicate mistakes. If you do all this, then why not dream?”