INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

Having taken over Edgardo Bauza Pizzi has stamped his authority and style of play on the Green Falcons.
Updated 16 June 2018
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INTERVIEW: Juan Antonio Pizzi says Saudi Arabia have nothing to fear at World Cup

  • Argentine boss of Green Falcons certain the players are now used to his style of play after seven months in the hotseat.
  • Pizzi and players head to Russia where they will play the hosts in the opening match on Thursday.

MOSCOW: From Diego Simeone to Pep Guardiola via Mauricio Pochettino and Jorge Sampaoli, the footballing influence of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa is far-reaching. Last November, when Juan Antonio Pizzi was appointed head coach of the Saudi Arabia national team, those famous tactical tentacles reached Riyadh.
Both Bielsa and Pizzi have coached the Chilean national team in recent years and the latter has spoken of his admiration he holds for the former. Bielsa’s teams are known for their stamina, willingness to press the opposition high up the pitch, and tendency to rush forward in numbers. For Pizzi, this strategy worked perfectly when he led Chile to victory at the 2016 Copa America, with the highlight a 7-0 annihilation of Mexico in the quarterfinals.
However, when Pizzi was appointed by the Saudi Arabia Football Federation to replace Edgardo Bauza, it was said the Gulf side lacked the players to implement the same high-intensity style. Instead of internationally trained global stars such as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, the 50-year-old was inheriting a squad of players competing exclusively in their local league.
It was not a straightforward handover, either. The Green Falcons had qualified for the World Cup under the guidance of Bert van Marwijk, who had a winning 4-3-3 formation and a well-disciplined team. When the Dutchman refused to relocate to the Kingdom, however, his contract was not renewed. That opened the door for Bauza, but the former Argentina national team coach was dismissed after just three official games having lost twice and netted just two goals. 
Now, seven months on, performances are much improved; the Green Falcons are showing signs of a return to form, only this time with a Bielsian flavour. With Pizzi opting more often for a 4-2-3-1 formation, recent preparatory games against Algeria and Greece included rapid attacks featuring four or five players, while the energetic press in the second half against Italy that led to Yahya Al-Shehri scoring stemmed from the side winning possession in the opposition half. The 3-0 defeat to Peru was, Pizzi believes, a mere hiccup given he had selected an experimental 11.
“I can identify with Bielsa, but we coaches need to be open and adaptable, never dismissive of a tactical scheme or a future possibility, even if we like some strategies more than others. That is why, as a head coach, I do not like to be confined to one set of tactics,” Pizzi told Arab News in his first sit-down interview with an English-language outlet since taking the reins of the team. 
“My overwhelming belief is that any footballer in the world can be adapted to any position, but only on the condition that the player is willing to take on board the head coach’s instructions. I mean, that’s essentially the main responsibility of a head coach — to identify the strengths of each player, how each player can be improved, and then to create a playing style that will bring all the players together and produce success on the pitch.”
Pizzi trained under Bauza at Rosario Central in 1999-2000 and is understandably respectful of his compatriot. He insists he did not seek out his former coach before accepting the opportunity to replace him and was not concerned by the amount of time Bauza had been given by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. Instead, Pizzi said, he is his own confident man with his own unique tactical ideas. 
“Bauza was my coach while in Argentina and I don’t like to speak too much about other coaches,” he said. “I am just trying always to impose my own playing style on my teams; the style that I want. I respect all the playing styles over the world; they are all different and have their own values, but this is my way. 
“I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure. Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective. For me, it is not always to put more players into the attack, but this is one idea.”
One of Pizzi’s biggest challenges is turning around his team’s fortunes in front of goal. Although the Green Falcons are creating chances, profligacy is hurting them. They have managed just eight goals in their past seven matches and Mohamed Al-Sahlawi, the team’s lone striker, is suffering an international goal drought that dates back more than a year. 
The Al-Nassr forward scored 16 times in 14 games during qualifying, but these statistics appear less impressive considering eight were against East Timor and only two arrived in the final qualifying phase when the opposition was more robust. Al-Sahlawi has failed to score for his country since a 3-2 defeat to Australia last June.
Pizzi, a former striker who racked up 160 goals in 364 games during a 15-year career with clubs including Barcelona, Tenerife and Valencia, knows only too well the importance of scoring for an attacking player’s confidence. And he is keen to ease the pressure on his only viable No. 10.
“I think that when it comes to strikers, their performances are related directly to self-belief and trust, and that can only grow when they do what they are chosen to do — score goals,” said the Argentine, who chose to represent Spain at international level and went on to net eight times in 22 appearances.
“But scoring is not the only reason strikers are in the team and it’s not their only task. That’s why it’s important for us to get the message across to all the players that it’s a team game and everyone must work together to score. Although it’s logical that the striker will make the goals because of his position on the pitch, without his teammates it is almost impossible for him to score.”
The focus now is working on composure in front of goal, but when Pizzi first took charge he had to increase not only his players’ fitness levels, but also their professionalism. Too many took their positions for granted while, under Bauza, many players had marked a 3-0 friendly defeat to Portugal by gorging on fast food. Such ingrained culture is difficult to erase, but having worked daily with his players for close to two months ahead of Thursday’s opening match, Pizzi is confident that they now understand what is required of them, and why.
“I’ve trained teams in Argentina, Spain and Mexico and also the national team in Chile,” he said.
“The most important thing is finding that professional, competitive level. We have had to reinforce personal levels of competitiveness in order to get players to compete again throughout the whole team. And that not only involves physical ability, but also fitness, diet and nutrition, and general professionalism.
“Fortunately, the players here are very malleable and have adapted to what we want from them. They know what to expect in Russia and know what we expect of them, so we are ready to perform to our best abilities. We are looking forward to the World Cup without fear.”


Blue Point focused on Al-Quoz glory after magical run at Meydan

Updated 33 min 7 sec ago
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Blue Point focused on Al-Quoz glory after magical run at Meydan

  • Star sprinter proves class with easy G2 win in Dubai.
  • Charlie Appleby hopeful over Al-Quoz Sprint chances.

LONDON: Star sprinter Blue Point is on course for glory in the much-anticipated Al-Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup night. That is the message from Godolphin after a brilliant victory in the G2 Meydan Sprint on Thursday.
The Dubai-based stable have long held high hopes for the Shamardal horse and the five-year-old’s win confirmed that they have something special on their hands.
Blue Point took up the running from Faatinah with more than two furlongs to race and readily opened up daylight over his rivals approaching the final furlong, quickly going clear.
For Charlie Appleby the performance only went to prove that Blue Point has it in him to steal the show on Dubai World Cup night in March.
“If he brought his class, he was going to be good enough to win, but we had left a bit on him because the G1 Al-Quoz Sprint on Dubai World Cup night is our target,” the Godolphin trainer said.
“No disrespect to this race, and we were pleased to win it, but it was the right stepping stone onto the Al-Quoz.
“I was pleased to see him in the paddock, more so than a couple of days ago when it looked like he had a couple of pounds left on him. He had tightened up a bit.
“We were always confident that he was going to come forward for whatever he did. He is a five-year-old now and a professional — getting better with racing. He came alive two furlongs down and it was only a matter of William asking him to pick up and do a bit of work.”
The “Boys in Blue” always place a lot of focus on the World Cup night and a second win in the Al-Quoz sprint — Appleby saddled Jungle Cat to victory last year — is one of the aims for the famous race meeting in March.
“I am very pleased and, all being well, he should step forward for it and all roads will now lead to the Al-Quoz Sprint,” Appleby said.
“I feel that he is not overly exposed as a sprinter — we looked after him as a two-year-old and a three-year-old, while he wasn’t over-raced last year so he is entitled still to be learning.”
Added to the optimism surrounding Blue Point is the fact that William Buick feels he is coming to form at just the right time.
“It was a nice comeback opportunity for Blue Point and he did it very comfortably, doing everything right. It was lovely to see him come back like that,” the jockey said. “He has probably matured a little bit compared to 12 months ago and the biggest difference this year is that he is a G1 winner this time. He had proved himself and feels like a very confident horse — there is no question that he is a top sprinter.”
Meanwhile, Godolphin’s star G1 performers Hartnell, Best Of Days and Alizee have been entered for the world’s richest mile race, the $5 million All-Star Mile to be run at Flemington on March 16.
Head trainer James Cummings confirmed that all three horses will seek a place in the famous race.
“We think it’s great the way in which it really engages with not only the racing audience, but potentially reaching out beyond just that and bringing in a wider audience from not only Australia, but from around the world,” Cummings said. “We’re really excited to be a part of the richest mile race anywhere in the world.”