Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar
Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar
Stanislav Cherchesov said of his Group A opponents Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. “We’ve never played any of these teams and I’ve never seen them.” He went on to list players he knew from the North Africans and the South America but didn’t say anything about the Green Falcons.
When live-blogging the draw, the BBC was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Russia vs Saudi Arabia curtain-raiser, saying that rival British terrestrial broadcaster ITV could have that game. Associated Press led with “Beleaguered World Cup gets dreary opener.”
It is hard to claim the opener between the two lowest-ranked teams (65 for the hosts and 62 for the opposition) is going to be the most glamorous game on offer next summer. The fact is the paucity of international knowledge when it comes to Saudi Arabian football is only matched by the lack of respect. Some more informed observers know that there have been three coaches of the Green Falcons in as many months. Fewer think that there is a chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
This may understandably annoy Green Falcons fans. The national team goes ignored for years by the international community and when it finally returns to the biggest stage of all, it is either ignored or dismissed.
So much the better. Being under-rated and unknown may just be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weapons. At the very least, being written off as no-hopers before the tournament starts should serve as motivation for the players, not that any should be needed before the World Cup. In sport, there are few incentives stronger than the desire to prove others wrong.
New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi may not know much about Saudi Arabia at the moment but has seven months to become familiar. One good thing for the Argentine is that nobody else knows anything about the team either and while that will change over the coming months as analysts start to earn their money, the fact that there is a new coach looking at new players and possible systems means that there will be an air of mystery and unpredictability about Saudi Arabia next summer. Having all players on the books of Saudi clubs — at the moment at least — also makes the mist surrounding the team a little thicker.
It means that the pressure will be on Russia, Egypt and Uruguay for those Group A games. All will be expecting to win and will be expected to win by their passionate fans and an impatient media.
That is especially the case with Russia. There is no pressure like that on the hosts of the World Cup in the opening game. The country remains a controversial host and all know how much stock, time and money has been invested in the tournament.
There will be 80,000 fans packed into the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Jun. 14 to provide an intimidating atmosphere for the the Green Falcons, but one that can quickly become a weight of expectation that stifles and suffocates rather than inspires.
The Russians are better going forward than they are defending and if the Saudis can frustrate for a while, not only will they get chances at some point, they may just turn the fans from being the hosts’ biggest advantage to the exact opposite.
Opening games have thrown up surprises before. In 1990, Cameroon kicked Argentina all over the San Siro Stadium and won 1-0 against the defending champions, and the mighty France side containing Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Veira lost in the curtain-raiser against Senegal in Seoul 12 years later. While Saudi Arabia may not be Cameroon or Senegal — who both reached the last eight and could have gone further — Russia are certainly no Argentina or France either.
The test will be tough for Saudi Arabia, this is the World Cup after all, but the draw is a good one and the opening game is a perfect one in which to make a huge statement. That Saudi Arabia have already been written off only makes everything a little easier.
Icardi sparks Inter’s late comeback to stun Spurs
- Christian Eriksen’s deflected strike gave Spurs a 53rd-minute lead at the San Siro
- Matias Vecino took advantage of some slack Tottenham defending at a corner to nod in a dramatic injury-time winner
MILAN: A stunning Mauro Icardi volley sparked a thrilling late Inter Milan comeback as the Italian side beat Tottenham 2-1 on their return to the Champions League after a seven-year absence on Tuesday.
Christian Eriksen’s deflected strike gave Spurs a 53rd-minute lead at the San Siro, and the visitors looked comfortable for much of the second half.
But Argentinian striker Icardi hammered home a magnificent volley in the 86th minute to draw Inter level, and Matias Vecino took advantage of some slack Tottenham defending at a corner to nod in a dramatic injury-time winner.
“This is exactly what the fans want to see,” said Inter coach Luciano Spalletti.
“Icardi scored a magnificent goal. The team had a great game and really went for it in the end.”
The win leaves Inter second in the early Group B table, behind Barcelona on goal difference after the Catalan giants thrashed PSV Eindhoven 4-0 with a Lionel Messi hat-trick.
The late drama was greeted with deafening applause from the 66,000 crowd in the San Siro who minutes earlier had feared that Inter’s disastrous start to the Serie A season would carry over into Europe.
“We came into this game with quite a few problems,” continued Spalletti, whose side are struggling in Serie A.
“I think that winning in the last minute after turning around the result gives you a lot of enthusiasm and self-belief.
“It means that we can believe in our potential for the future. The reaction is a sign we are on the right path.”
Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino lamented his side’s failure to kill off a game.
Star striker Harry Kane missed an early opportunity to add to his Champions League tally after being served up a clever chipped cross from Eriksen on 38 minutes.
“If he had scored maybe we are talking about a different game,” said Pochettino. “We are suffering a little bit but that’s not an excuse.”
Kane, the top scorer at the World Cup with six goals, arrived in Italy having scored nine goals in ten Champions League games.
But with only Samir Handanovic to beat the England striker rounded the Inter goalkeeper before losing his way as the ball rolled behind for a goal kick.
After Eriksen struck with a deflected shot that looped over Handanovic, the Londoners looked in control.
But the hosts turned things around with Icardi scoring his first Champions League goal in his first appearance in the competition, to add to his 110 goals in Serie A.
Inter Milan, who last won the trophy in 2010 under Jose Mourinho, were returning to Europe’s elite event for the first time since 2011-12, with Tottenham eliminated last season in the knockout rounds by Juventus.
Both teams are faltering in the league with Inter Milan on four points from four games and Tottenham sixth after suffering consecutive defeats.
Pochettino made five changes to the Tottenham side that lost to Liverpool at the weekend with Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Harry Winks and Lucas Moura all dropping out.
“It’s easy to talk about the players who aren’t here,” snapped Pochettino of his tactical choices.
“Against Watford and Liverpool they were on the pitch.
“That is football. After 46 years loving this game, I understand that some tough periods can arrive.
“After the Manchester United win (in August) I said: ‘be careful, be careful the tough period can arrive’ and here it is.
“The important thing is to work harder and to be strong. We have the quality but for different reasons we’re a little late in our preparation.
“Today I started to see good signals that the team is coming back again.
“We showed great personality, playing in the San Siro is a very difficult place and we showed character and personality.”