Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

Saudi Arabia will have to scrap for every ball in Russia next summer, but they also know that a lot of pressure will be placed on the hosts when the two sides do battle on Jun. 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium. (AP)
Updated 05 December 2017
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Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

LONDON: About the nicest thing anyone said about Saudi Arabia after the 2018 World Cup draw on Friday in Moscow came from the coach of opening game opponents Russia.
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.


‘Trophies matter’- Jose Mourinho remains defiant ahead of United-Liverpool Premier League clash

Updated 14 December 2018
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‘Trophies matter’- Jose Mourinho remains defiant ahead of United-Liverpool Premier League clash

MANCHESTER: Jose Mourinho says success is best measured in trophies as he prepares to take his injury-hit Manchester United squad to high-flying Liverpool on Sunday.
Liverpool are top of the Premier League before the weekend round of matches but have yet to win a trophy under the management of Jurgen Klopp, who has been in charge since October 2015.
The 18-times English champions have won just one prize in the past 12 years — the League Cup under Kenny Dalglish in 2012 — despite featuring in two European finals.
Mourinho won the Europa League and FA Cup in his first season at Old Trafford but ended last season empty-handed and his team are lagging 16 points behind Klopp’s side in this season’s title race.
“I think trophies matter, yeah,” said Mourinho. “I think it matters, especially when you have the potential to fight for trophies and when you clearly say the objective is to win the trophies.
“I think sometimes just to say it is not very intelligent. But when you have the potential you have nothing to hide.
“I don’t read much but I think they (Liverpool) have said that their objective is to win the Premier League,” he added.
Even though Klopp has yet to win silverware at Anfield, Mourinho acknowledges that the Liverpool manager has built a team in his own image, full of attacking intent.
By contrast, the United manager believes he is still a long way from having a team that reflects the way he wants to play.
“A football team is not just about spending the money,” said Mourinho. “A football team is a little bit like a house. A house is not just about buying your furniture. You have to do work on the house and when it’s ready you buy the furniture.
“You spend money on the best possible furniture and then you are ready to live in an amazing house.”
Mourinho faces taking a depleted squad to Anfield on Sunday, with several players battling to recover from the injuries that kept them out of Wednesday’s Champions League defeat in Valencia.
Defender Victor Lindelof and forward Alexis Sanchez will definitely miss the game as they continue to recover from hamstring injuries.
Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian, Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay and Marcos Rojo will be assessed to ascertain whether they can return against Liverpool.
Goalkeeper David de Gea and midfielder Nemanja Matic, who were rested against Valencia, will return, but United’s manager remains unsure how many players he will have to choose from.
“In Valencia, only De Gea and Matic were available to play and didn’t travel by decision,” he said.
“Apart from that, the other players who didn’t travel were not fit to play in Valencia. All of them had injuries and they were not ready.
“All of them didn’t train yesterday again and today there will be a little introduction to training — I don’t want to say test — to see the answer, to see if we can increase it a little bit tomorrow to have them available for Sunday. I hope that some will be available but for sure some will not be.”