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.


McIlroy, Woods endure nightmare starts as Holmes takes British Open lead

Updated 18 July 2019
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McIlroy, Woods endure nightmare starts as Holmes takes British Open lead

  • American JB Holmes claims lead as championship returns to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951
  • Woods and McIlroy now face daunting tasks to try and make the cut

PORTRUSH, UK: Home favorite Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods both endured dreadful starts to the British Open on Thursday, while American JB Holmes claimed the lead as the championship returned to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1951.
Organizers the R&A are anticipating the second-biggest ever Open attendance, with 237,750 people expected to come through the gates this week in Northern Ireland, but spectators were left stunned by McIlroy’s immediate collapse.
He briefly battled back after a bogey at the par-three third hole, but missed a tiny putt to double-bogey the 16th, tripled-bogeyed the last and eventually carded a disastrous eight-over 79.
“I guess when you play your first and last holes in a combined seven over par you are starting on the back foot,” said McIlroy.
The four-time major champion, who fired a course-record 61 at Portrush at the age of just 16 in 2005, was given a huge reception on the first tee as the crowds huddled around the opening hole for a sight of the local hero.
But he quadrupled-bogeyed the first after hitting his tee shot out of bounds.
Woods saw his bid for a 16th major title all but come to a premature end as he stuttered to a miserable seven-over 78, including six bogeys and a double bogey at the par-three sixth.
The Masters champion’s sole birdie of the day came at the par-four 15th, which he celebrated with an ironic raise of his arms, but he fittingly finished his round with one last bogey.
Woods and McIlroy now face daunting tasks to try and make the cut.
McIlroy is already 13 strokes adrift of leader Holmes — with Woods one better off — after the 37-year-old birdied the 18th to post an excellent five-under 66 and move one shot clear of previous leader Shane Lowry.
Holmes’ previous best major finish was third at the 2016 Open and he has missed eight cuts in his last 13 events, and withdrew from one of the others.
Ireland’s Lowry held the lead for much of the day before being toppled by Holmes, having to settle for second place heading into Friday.
The world number 33, who made five birdies in his 67, admitted he struggled to keep his nerves in check on the first tee, with the crowds lending strong support to all six players from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“It’s the British Open, it’s in Ireland. I feel like I’m hitting it well. Of course I feel uneasy,” he said.
There is a group of 13 players in the clubhouse just two strokes off the lead on three-under, including world number one Brooks Koepka and Spaniard Jon Rahm.
American Koepka made his only bogey of the day on the penultimate green, but felt he could have done much better.
“Didn’t really make any putts. Didn’t take advantage of anything to really go low,” said Koepka, who has finished in the top two of all three majors this year and is looking to add the Claret Jug to his two US Opens and two PGA Championship titles.
“But definitely didn’t shoot myself out of it, so I’m okay with that.”
Rahm, who won his second Irish Open title at Lahinch two weeks ago, held the lead on his own on various occasions, but dropped back with bogeys at the 15th and 18th holes.
English pair Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood are also among those on three-under, with the latter still looking for his maiden major title in his 25th consecutive British Open appearance.
Ryan Fox of New Zealand had a record-breaking day with the lowest back nine in Open history as he came home in 29 to get to join the pack of players who signed for 68s.
Reigning champion Francesco Molinari saw his hopes of becoming the first man to defend the title since Padraig Harrington in 2008 take a blow, only managing a three-over 74.
Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo got the crowds excited with the first hole-in-one at the championship since 2016 on the par-three 13th.