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Bulgaria defeat gives KSA coach plenty to ponder

Edgardo Bauza won one and lost two during his three-game tour of western Europe. (AFP)
LISBON: Two defeats from three games and only two goals scored — were it a World Cup group, Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be eliminated.
Instead, coach Edgardo Bauza and his team return to the Gulf calm, knowing the focus of the 12-day, three-match training camp in western Europe was on experimentation and implementation rather than any sort of results-based calculations.
“The score is not so important,” the Argentine told Arab News after watching his team lose 1-0 to Bulgaria on Monday night courtesy of a second-half header from captain Ivelin Popov.
“We had our chances and we have to be content. We played players that usually do not play, I had the opportunity to see how they performed, and now we must look forward and work to improve before the next camp.”
The defeat consigned Bauza to a second defeat in as many games, but comparing results would be foolhardy. Following a fine 2-0 win over Latvia last Tuesday, Bauza set his side up in Friday’s 3-0 loss to Portugal solely to defend. Inside the Estádio do Restelo against Bulgaria he made 11 changes and switched formations from a 5-4-1 to a 4-5-1.
With Saudi Arabia’s considerable Al-Hilal contingent having been allowed to return early to the Gulf ahead of Saturday’s AFC Champions League final first leg, out went his preferred full-back pairing of Yasir Al-Shahrani and Mohammed Al-Burayk.
In their place came Al-Ahli duo Saeed Al-Muwallad and Mansoor Al-Harbi, while Muhannad Assiri led the line in place of the debutant Haza Al-Hazza.
The result was a scrappy match, low on quality, in which Saudi Arabia struggled to create a clear-cut opening, were punished for sloppy defending, and eventually saw Al-Harbi sent off.
“Taking into account the opposition and the fact the team we named was not our first choice, it was not a shock result,” Bauza said. “That said, I believe we should not have lost.”
Against a team ranked 27 places higher in FIFA’s world rankings, the Green Falcons appeared to cede possession early on. Yet for all Bulgaria had the ball, they offered little threat and it was Saudi striker Assiri who came closest to opening the scoring on the stroke of half-time. The Ahli forward capitalized on poor defending to latch onto a hopeful long ball and lift it over goalkeeper Plamen Iliev, only to see a Bulgarian boot clear it off the line.
Bauza had cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines in the first half, urging his side in Spanish to attack only to watch helplessly as the message fell on deaf ears. In the second period, his desire was delivered as Saudi Arabia racked up a host of corners. Mohammed Al-Fatil saw his bullet header palmed over the crossbar, before a similar header from Assiri would have returned a goal if it had been anywhere other than straight at Iliev.
“I told them we need to attack more, to try to get the ball in the opposition area,” said Bauza. “We managed four or five goal-scoring opportunities in the second period, so it was a positive sign that the team listened to my message.”
Eventually, however, Bulgaria’s threat appeared. Waleed Abdullah was forced to make an excellent pair of saves before, with a little under 10 minutes to go, a lapse in concentration in the Saudi defence allowed Popov an unmarked header from close range. Moments later Al-Harbi was shown a straight red for a rash challenge on Giorgi Milanov.
“We have a lot of time, but also a lot of work,” added Bauza, who will travel to Moscow for the World Cup draw on Dec. 1.
“Let’s keep watching the local championship, see all the players, and select the best for our next camp in March.”