CADIZ: A powerful free-kick from Salman Al-Faraj and a cool late finish from Yahya Al-Shehri proved enough to hand Saudi Arabia a much-needed friendly win over Algeria at the Estadio Ramón de Carranza in southern Spain.
With just one win from four games since taking charge late last year, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi knew the importance of victory against a team that finished bottom of its African World Cup qualifying group and who were operating without their overseas players. His predecessor and Argentine compatriot, Edgardo Bauza, was dismissed after five matches.
Pizzi made five changes to the team that started the 4-0 defeat to Belgium in March, with Abdullah Al-Mayouf favored in goal and Osama Hawsawi and Yasir Al-Sharani returning to defence. Al-Faraj, making his first international appearance since suffering a muscle injury in March, joined Hattan Bahbri, the replacement for Fahad Al-Muwallad who had made his La Liga debut just 48 hours earlier with Levante.
The Argentine led Chile to Copa America glory in 2016 with a work ethic built around relentless pressing. His Green Falcons showed brief, early glimpses of a similar intensity, swarming the ball and making it difficult for their opponents to create anything of substance. A criticism often levelled at the Saudi defence, however, is a tendency to switch off at key moments and Saeed Al-Mowallad was guilty inside the first 10 minutes. The Al-Ahli full-back was caught napping to allow Abdennour Belkheir sneak in for a free header, but the Algerian forward failed to hit the target.
The pace and movement of Belkheir continued to cause problems for the Saudi backline and he appeared to have earned his team a penalty when he went to ground in the 22nd minute. The Spanish referee waved play on, however, and it would prove a crucial as Saudi, perhaps stirred by the decision, quickly drove forward. Al-Nassr’s Mohammed Al-Sahlawi tried to turn on the edge of the area, but was bundled over and this time the official showed no hesitance in awarding a free-kick.
Al-Faraj, who had scored only twice before for his country, stepped up and calmly drilled low into the far corner to give Pizzi’s side a lead for the first time since his first match in charge against Moldova in February.
Algeria faded after conceding, but Saudi failed to make the most of their dominance. Al-Jassem elected to shoot from distance when Al-Sahlawi was screaming for a pass; Al-Dawsari beat a high-line only to run out of gas and lose possession; and Bahberi was glad to see the lineman’s flag raised after failing to hit the target from just a few yards out.
They were running riot without ever really testing Toufik Moussaoui in the Algeria goal, the nadir arriving when Al-Jassem broke through the middle and found his teammates outnumbering the Algeria defence four-to-two. It looked certain the Green Falcons would double their lead, but instead, having picked out Al-Faraj, the Hilal midfielder made a rare mistake and the ball was cleared.
Both sides made wholesale substitutions during the second period, which affected the flow of the game. As the tempo dipped, however, the number of late challenges grew, forcing the referee to show seven yellow cards, including to Al-Sharani and Al-Jassem.
With just eight minutes remaining, substitute Yahya Al-Shehri settled the tie. Played in behind a tiring Algerian defence, the stocky Leganes midfielder shaped to fire high, but showed the composure his teammates had been so lacking to slot calmly past Moussaoui at his near post.
Pizzi will hope some of that poise can be shared among his squad before their next match with Greece on Tuesday.
Saudi: Al-Mayouf; Al-Mowallad (Al-Burayk, 85), Hawsawi, Othman, Al-Sharani; Al-Otayf (Jahsan, 88), Al-Dawsari (Al-Shehri, 70), Al-Faraj (Kanoo, 87), Al-Jassem (Al-Khaibri 79), Bahberi (Al-Kowaikbe, 70) ; Al-Sahlawi
Algeria: Toufik Moussaoui; Azzi (Arous, 65), Chafaï, Benmoussa, Naamani; Lakroum (Bougelmouna, 59), Boukhanchouche (Benkhemassa, 45), Bennacer (Zouari, 77), Abid; Belkheir (El-Orfi, 54); El Ouazani (Bourdim, 72)