Saudi Arabia’s football team out to hit the heights

Saudi Arabia know they face a tough task in trying to overcome Portugal tonight. (AP)
Updated 10 November 2017
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Saudi Arabia’s football team out to hit the heights

VISEU, Portugal: Two South Americans, two Gulf nations, one similar story. But will they end the same?
Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, Carlos Alberto Parreira swapped the managerial reins at Saudi Arabia for the chance to lead the UAE. The venerated Brazilian coach inherited an Emirati squad that had already made history by qualifying for the showpiece tournament and he approached it with the mindset that his players should simply enjoy the occasion. They lost all three games, conceded 11 goals, and Parreira was promptly dismissed.
Twenty-seven years later, a similar situation is playing out once again, only this time it is the UAE that have seen their South American coach switch to their Gulf neighbors. Argentine Edgardo Bauza was with the Emirates for only four months before being selected by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to lead the Green Falcons at next summer’s World Cup. With the team having already qualified under Bert van Marwijk, Bauza’s task is to ensure his squad is ready to compete in Russia.
Regardless of next summer being the Kingdom’s first World Cup appearance in more than a decade, for Bauza and his players, merely enjoying the occasion is not an option — as Parreira can testify. When the Brazilian returned to the Saudi helm in 1998, he became the first manager to be sacked during a World Cup after overseeing two group-stage defeats. His Argentine counterpart is thus under no illusions with regards to expectations.
Bauza was an unused substitute during the 1990 World Cup final so understands better than most the importance of a deep squad. He has brought an experimental 30-man pool to Portugal for a 12-day training camp he hopes will help decide the 23 players heading for Russia. Parreira also opted for southern Europe for a pre-tournament camp in 1990, but while the UAE lost 4-0 to Poland and 3-0 to Hungary, Bauza’s squad are already showing vastly more potential.
Against Latvia in Lisbon, first-half goals by Ali Al-Zaqan and Mukhtar Fallatah resulted in a comfortable 2-0 win on Tuesday. The squad have since traveled north to Viseu for tonight’s glamor tie against the hosts. Portugal coach Fernando Santos has rested Cristiano Ronaldo, but still boasts the likes of Andre and Bernardo Silva, as well as a Pepe and Bruma. The visitors will return to the capital to finish their camp against Bulgaria on Monday.
The Latvia match was Bauza’s third unofficial game in charge following a 5-2 win over Jamaica and a 3-0 defeat to Ghana last month. The former Argentina coach has already handed debuts to eight players, including Al-Zaqan, the Al-Fateh winger who opened the scoring on Tuesday after a well-worked free-kick involving Al-Ahli duo Abdulfattah Asiri and Mohammed Al-Fatil.
Al-Hilal striker Fallatah has also been brought back into the fold. Despite having failed to score in his previous eight internationals, his clipped finish perfectly complemented Hussain Al-Mogahwi’s defense-splitting pass. It was a strike typical of a forward who scored 16 times for Al-Wehda last season, rather than one who has yet to make a league appearance for Hilal since his transfer in June.
Victory against a team ranked 129th in the world is expected, but tonight’s official friendly against the reigning European champions will provide a better insight into the amount of work Bauza has to do. Known in Argentina as “El Patón” (Big Foot), if he can leave Viseu with at least a draw, it will be a big step forward — and help end comparisons with another South American who crossed the Saudi-UAE divide in a World Cup year.


Morocco proud of its Atlas Lions despite Portugal defeat, World Cup exit

Updated 20 June 2018
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Morocco proud of its Atlas Lions despite Portugal defeat, World Cup exit

  • While Morocco were on top for long periods, the Atlas Lions could not get the goal they deserved and needed
  • Ronaldo, named man of the match by FIFA after his fourth goal of the World Cup so far, recognized that it was a tough game

MOSCOW: Morocco became the first team to exit the 2018 World Cup on Wednesday after a 1-0 loss to Portugal in Moscow left coach Herve Renard to reflect on what could have been had he been able to call up Cristiano Ronaldo.
Just five days after his hat-trick against Spain in a 3-3 thriller, the Real Madrid star was once again the difference-maker and scored the only goal of the game with a fourth-minute header.
While Morocco were on top for long periods, the Atlas Lions could not get the goal they deserved and needed. It was a similar outcome to the opening 1-0 loss to Iran when the North Africans had chances to win, but ended with nothing.
It leaves Morocco with zero points from two games in Group B and unable to finish in the top two with a final game against Spain on Monday now just a matter of pride.
“This is what happens in football,” Renard said. “In the penalty area at crucial times, the most gifted players are the ones who make all the difference. It is a lot easier to play with a player who can score from a goal opportunity. We have high quality players and should have been more effective as we had lots of chances.”
Ronaldo, named man of the match by FIFA after his fourth goal of the World Cup so far, recognized that it was a tough game for the European champions who now have four points from two games.
“I am very happy to score, but it is more important to win the game and get the points,” Ronaldo said. “We know if we lost we could be out. We knew they would be trying very hard and were very strong. It was a really tough game for us, but I managed to get the goal, and it was beautiful.”
Morocco were unhappy with the goal, with Renard asking reporters to look at the corner from which Portugal scored, hinting that Portuguese defender Pepe had fouled one of his players. “Have a good look at the corner kick and what the number three is doing and write the truth. I can’t say too much or I will be punished.”
As it is, however, Morocco are out regardless of what happens against Spain on June 25. Renard has, however, insisted that the team will leave Russia with their heads held high.
“I am not disappointed with the performance,” the French coach said. “I am very proud of my players, very proud of the country and proud of the staff. The whole Moroccan people are proud, even very proud, of this team. It felt like Casablanca in here and that is something you can never take away from the players.”
The well-travelled 49-year-old reflected on Morocco’s journey since he took the job in February 2016. “Then we were ranked 81 and now we are 41 and came to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. Here we have shown we can play football, we do play football.”
Portuguese coach Fernando Santos paid tribute to the North Africans.
“They played well and challenged us. It is maybe an unfair result for them, that is football. If you score, you can win. I am not happy with the way we played, but we played against a good team.”