Saudi Arabia improving, but Algeria game shows more work to do

Saudi Arabia celebrate one of their two goals against Algeria.
Updated 11 May 2018
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Saudi Arabia improving, but Algeria game shows more work to do

  • Saudi Arabia beat Algeria 2-0 in a friendly in Spain
  • Juan Antonio Pizzi's side wasted several chances in a comfortable victory

CADIZ, Spain: It felt like a significant moment. Midway through the second-half of Wednesday night’s friendly with Algeria and with the scoreline poised at 1-0, Saudi Arabia midfielder Tayseer Al-Jassem collected the ball and carried it forward at pace from the centre of the park. With his legs pedalling quickly and the goal in sight, it would be easy to liken elements of the move to Saeed Al-Owairan’s legendary solo goal at the 1994 World Cup, but such a comparison would be great exaggeration. Also, what Al Jassem’s attack seemed to represent was in in some ways far more impressive. 

Algeria had started the match stronger, but had been fading ever since falling behind to Salman Al-Faraj’s drilled free-kick in the 24th minute. Their defensive line was losing its shape and the players, all of whom play their domestic football in Algeria, were tiring. Now, as Al-Jassem galloped forward, the Al-Ahli midfielder found himself with a wealth of options to either side.

Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, the Green Falcons solitary striker, and Hattan Bahbri, installed as a replacement for Fahad Al-Muwallad who had made his La Liga debut with Levante just 48 hours earlier, were free in space to the left. Al-Faraj, a calm and creative head throughout the first half, had tucked in tight to Al-Jassem’s right. With only two Algerian defenders in position, this was a swarming attack; less Al-Owairan and more La Roja; less individual brilliance, more a glimpse of Saudi’s new footballing philosophy. 

Indeed, the Green Falcons, if only for a few seconds, sparked memories of the Chilean side that Pizzi led to glory at the 2016 Copa America; a team that annihilated Mexico 7-0 and beat a Lionel Messi-led Argentina on penalties in the final. A team built around the Marcelo Bielsa school of thought: press and swarm, pass and shift, attack in numbers. 

Al-Jassem had wasted an attack in the first half, electing to shoot wildly from distance when Al-Sahlawi was better-positioned and closer to goal. This time, he raised his head, assessed his options and fed it short to Al-Faraj, who looked to quickly return the favour only to see an Algerian foot block the ball’s path. The move petered out almost as quickly as it had been ignited. Pizzi, bespectacled and previously barking orders in Spanish from the sidelines, sat in silence. 

Understrength opposition and missed opportunity aside, the fact Saudi could show even a glimpse of such promise is noteworthy. Pizzi had spoken pre-match about the need to be more creative, insisting that his team must “find other ways to get the goals…other ways to score, not just with the striker…find other movements.” Al-Jassem’s attack showed progress.

 

 And progress is certainly necessary. For all Saudi’s dominance, they failed too often to punish their inferior opponents, managing just seven shots in 90 minutes. Only a late strike from substitute Yahya Al-Shehri ensured the tie was over going into the dying stages. Two shots on target and two goals can be spun whichever way it is desired, but there is no doubt the scoreline should have been more emphatic. 

Pizzi, a striker who enjoyed spells at Barcelona and Tenerife, netted 168 career goals in 386 games, including eight times for the Spanish national team, and is working continuously with his squad to improve the players’ finishing. It remains, however, a cause for concern that their World Cup opponents will almost certainly not afford his side as many goalscoring opportunities as Algeria.

Most concerning is the form of Al-Sahlawi. His statistics in qualifying — 16 goals in 18 games — appear less impressive when considering eight were against lowly East Timor and only two arrived in the final stages when the opposition was more testing. The Al-Nassr striker has now failed to score since a 3-2 defeat to Australia in June last year and while Pizzi searches for a viable alternative, there is simply no obvious replacement. 

As part of a sponsorship deal, Al-Sahlawi will soon travel to Manchester United to train with Jose Mourinho’s side. Working with top-level players at world-class facilities can only help him, but the entire Saudi team must be more clinical. Pizzi, while having likely enjoyed the sight of his white-shirted side attacking in numbers, will sleep no easier after another performance filled with profligacy. More work is required. And the goal is clear.

FASTFACTS

Seventh Heaven

Since Juan Antonio Pizzi took over at Saudi Arabia, the Green Falcons have managed seven goals, while they have conceded nine.


Kusal Perera the hero as Sri Lanka pull off stunning run chase to beat South Africa in Durban

Updated 16 February 2019
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Kusal Perera the hero as Sri Lanka pull off stunning run chase to beat South Africa in Durban

DURBAN: Sri Lanka pulled off a stunning against-the-odds run chase to beat South Africa by one wicket in the first Test on Saturday as Kusal Perera almost single-handedly won the game with his 153 not out.
Chasing an unlikely 304, Sri Lanka were 226-9 and seemingly out of it. But a last-wicket partnership of 78 between Perera and Vishwa Fernando took the tourists to a thrilling victory on the fourth day.
Perera scored 68 of those 78 runs, but Fernando hung in for 27 balls for his 6 not out to allow Perera to guide the tourists home.
Sri Lanka’s victory gives them a 1-0 lead in the short two-test series and ends South Africa’s run of seven straight home series wins.
Sri Lanka’s 304-9 was the third-highest successful run chase in nearly 100 years of Test cricket at the Kingsmead ground in Durban.
Perera won it with a late cut down to the boundary for four, prompting Sri Lankan players to sprint from the dressing room and out onto the pitch to congratulate their match winner. Perera removed his helmet and thrust both arms up in the air to celebrate one of the best innings ever by a Sri Lankan.
Sri Lanka have lost their last three series and had two debutants and a new captain for the first test, meaning few people gave the inexperienced visiting team a chance against South Africa.