Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia's 4-1 defeat to Iraq

It was a tough night for the Green Falcons as they were undone by a passionate Iraq side in Basra
Updated 01 March 2018

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia's 4-1 defeat to Iraq

BASRA: Saudi Arabia crashed to a 4-1 defeat to Iraq in Basra on Wednesday. The defeat hit the Green Falcons’ World Cup preparations, with the result illustrating the size of the job Juan Antonio Pizzi has on his hands with the showpiece kicking off just in four months.

Here are five things we learned from the defeat in Basra.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record the Green Falcons are in desperate need of some teeth in attack. There was no question that Saudi Arabia played the more expansive football against Iraq, with plenty of intricate passing from the likes of Mohammad Al-Shalhoub, Mohammed Al-Kwikbi and Hassan Al-Raheb. But while they can call on a host of technically gifted midfield players, there is still a major lack of penetration up front. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s decision not to play any out-and-out forward was indicative of the lack of striking options — as was the fact Saudi Arabia’s only goal came from a full-back, and courtesy of a calamitous goalkeeping error. Pizzi has previously labelled his striking void “a deficiency” but if no Saudi strikers step up soon, it may transform into a disaster.

In front of a raucous home crowd of more than 60,000, Saudi Arabia struggled to handle the pressure cooker atmosphere of a highly partisan arena. This does not bode well with just four months until their World Cup opener against Russia at Moscow’s 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium. While the Green Falcons enjoy incredible support on their own turf, they have had much less experience of such big occasions away from home. A 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory in Thailand (attendance 41,000) is really the only recent example of a victory when a packed stadium has been against them. Improved mental strength will be key if Saudi Arabia are to avoid being overawed in June.

Beyond all the diplomacy and politics surrounding Wednesday’s friendly, the choice of Iraq as an opponent was also supposed to be because of their similar playing style to Egypt. If that is the case, Saudi Arabia should be worried. Iraq do not possess anywhere near the quality of the Pharaohs, yet their aggressive counter-attacking style exposed some major weaknesses in the Saudi backline. Saeed Alyami was replaced by Mohammed Jahfali after his own goal but it did little to solve the susceptibility to pace on the counter in the second half. If the Green Falcons struggled against Mohannad Ali and Humam Tariq, there should be genuine concern at the prospect of Egypt’s Mahmoud Kahraba and Mohamed Salah in Russia.

It seems a little ridiculous to question a football coach’s position just two games into his new job but Juan Antonio Pizzi will be only too aware of the size of the task he has taken on. These may only be “friendlies” but that term means little when you are four months out form a World Cup: Every match matters. Progression and results are expected so, like it or not, the pressure is already on Pizzi ahead of the clash with Ukraine later this month.

The stars of the show in Basra were the Iraqi fans, who turned up in their tens of thousands to see Saudi Arabia’s first match on Iraqi soil in four decades. Beyond the packed stadium, another 10,000 people stood outside the ground watching the game on screens. It was a magnificent show of unity and while FIFA president Gianni Infantino was unable to accept an invitation to attend, Iraqi officials expect him to land in the country within the next couple of months. The hope is that FIFA deem Iraq ready to host competitive international football again. On this evidence, the decision should be an easy one for Infantino and Co. to make.

River edge out Boca after extra time to win Copa Libertadores

River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after the first leg finished 2-2. (AFP
Updated 10 December 2018

River edge out Boca after extra time to win Copa Libertadores

  • River Plate came from behind to beat bitter Argentine rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 in extra time
  • The fixture postponed on three occasions and then relocated from Buenos Aires to Madrid

MADRID: River Plate won the Copa Libertadores by beating their fiercest rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 after extra time on Sunday, bringing an end to a final tainted by violence and moved more than six thousand miles away from Argentina.
Boca took the lead through Dario Benedetto but Lucas Pratto equalized before Juan Quintero and Gonzalo Martinez scored in extra time, aided by Wilmar Barrios being sent off, to win a fittingly dramatic contest for River.
It means River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after the first leg finished 2-2 and the club reclaim the trophy they had last won in 2015, lifting it for the fourth time in their history.
“The only thing I feel is sadness for not winning the cup and giving it to the people of Boca,” Boca coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said.
“It is difficult to say to people that we haven’t won, especially those that made so much effort to come from Argentina.”
Postponed on three occasions and then relocated from Buenos Aires to Madrid, the supporters of these two great clubs showed in the Santiago Bernabeu why this fixture had been billed as one of football’s greatest ever.
Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Diego Godin were among the 62,200 in attendance.
But, despite the bouncing huddles in the streets, the plumes of blue and red smoke, the swinging scarves, fluttering flags and fans that were chanting in their seats three hours before kick-off, there was nothing to extinguish the lingering sense of regret.
There was no repeat of the scenes that cast a shadow over Argentinian football and saw the original game at River’s El Monumental on November 24 postponed, when around 50 fans attacked Boca’s team bus and left some of their players injured.
Madrid, which will also host the Champions League final in June, was chosen in part because of its record of hosting major events and the security, which included around 2,500 police officers, did its job before kick-off.
Fans were separated into zones either side of the stadium and had to go through checks even to enter the area immediately surrounding it.
The shame was only that the operation was not as thorough 15 days ago and that a minority decided to take advantage.
Both clubs were allocated 25,000 tickets, with 5,000 of those reserved for residents of Argentina. The fear had been most of those buying would be tourists and neutrals, but the atmosphere suggested different.
Both teams had initially refused to play in Spain’s capital but as the losers, Boca’s sense of grievance will now become more entrenched.
They felt River were responsible for the chaos two weeks ago and should have forfeited the trophy. They took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the appeal was rejected on Saturday.
When the players shuffled out two hours before kick-off to inspect the pitch, they held up their phones to capture the thousands already inside and the view of a stadium most of them had never played in before.
The cheers grew louder when they came out for kick-off. Then there were whistles as the teams swapped ends and each were greeted by their opponent’s fans behind the goal.
Jonatan Maidana was playing for Boca when they last won the Copa Libertadores 11 years ago and, now in the red and white of River, he almost gave his former club an early lead, slicing just over his own crossbar.
The game lacked quality but came alive one minute before half-time. Nahitan Nandez’s superb pass split two River defenders and Benedetto kept a cool head, guiding into the corner, before taunting the beaten Gonzalo Montiel.
River had been inferior but improved. Their first real attacking move was also a brilliant one as Leonardo Ponzio and Quintero exchanged passes before the latter pulled back for Pratto to sweep home.
The game meandered toward full-time and seemed destined for penalties until Barrios was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Exequiel Palacios and soon after, Quintero struck.
It was a goal worthy of winning the tournament, as he collected 25 yards out, glanced up and whipped the ball in off the underside of the crossbar.
Leonard Jara almost snatched a late Boca goal but his shot nicked the outside of the post. Then, with Boca’s goalkeeper Esteban Andrada up for a corner, River added the final touch.
Martinez ran the ball into the empty net and River’s substitutes and staff were already pouring onto the pitch to begin the celebrations.