PREVIEW: Saudi Arabia confident and ready to take on Russia in World Cup opener

Salem Al-Dawsari takes instructions from Juan Antonio Pizzi, both men will be key to the side's chances of making it out of Group A.
Updated 14 June 2018
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PREVIEW: Saudi Arabia confident and ready to take on Russia in World Cup opener

  • Time for talk is over as Saudi Arabia get ready to face Russia in Moscow.
  • First appearance for the Green Falcons at World Cup since 2006.

MOSCOW: Finally, the day has arrived. Three years after their first qualifying match, nine months after they secured their place at the finals, six months after being drawn to compete in the opening match, and six days after landing in Russia, the Saudi Arabia national football team will take center stage today at the World Cup’s curtain-raiser.
After much preparation and posturing, the time for talk is over. On Thursday (June 14), at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Saudi Arabia will face hosts Russia in what will be the Gulf nation’s first appearance at the tournament in 12 years. And if the scenes on the streets surrounding the capital’s Red Square are any indication, the Green Falcons will enjoy a raucous reception.
On Tuesday night, with Russians having gathered outside a cordoned-off Kremlin to celebrate their national day with an exclusive concert, the nearby streets were filled with football fans from different countries. Mexicans in sombreros sang alongside Colombians who banged metal tins; Egyptians dressed as pharaohs posed for photos alongside Iranians; Moroccans, Tunisians, Peruvians, Brazilians, Germans, Argentines, Uruguayans, and even a small group of Australians all mingled together under the cool night sky.
And there in the middle of Nikolskaya St. — with some having climbed atop a wooden bench and others waving Saudi Arabia flags or banners of the royal family from the tiled pavement below — rejoiced the Saudis. Grown men who still remember their country’s first participation in 1994, smiling boys who can name all the current players and their shirt numbers, and young women with their mothers excited at the prospect of cheering for their countrymen inside an 81,000-seat stadium with an estimated 250 million spectators watching around the world.
Abdulrahman Al-Shibari — from Riyadh but studying in Moscow — hopped merrily among the crowd, each of his cheeks bearing a small painted green rectangle filled with the shahada and a sword.
Al-Shibari said he is confident his country will do him proud. “We will win 3-0, inshallah!” he proclaimed loudly. “We have a good team, good players and we will win, inshallah! We will progress to the next round. I am sure we will do it!” 
When the 32-team World Cup draw was made last December, grouping the Green Falcons with Russia, Uruguay and Egypt, some eyebrows were raised. Not only does today’s opening game mark the first time an Arab side has contested the tournament’s curtain-raiser, but if Russia — ranked 70th in the world — wanted the easiest possible start to their month-long showpiece on home soil, they could not have chosen a more suitable opponent than 67th-ranked Saudi Arabia.
Yet to suggest the Arab side are easy opponents for the home nation would be to underestimate the work that has been going on behind the scenes for the past seven months. With the support of SAFF, the country’s football federation, the Saudi team has enjoyed a preparation that other nations could only dream of. Juan Antonio Pizzi, appointed as head coach only in November, has been able to train his squad daily for the past two months, taking them to Europe for camps and warm-up matches against some of the best teams in the world.
“First of all, I think it is a massive achievement for every player to play at a World Cup,” Pizzi told Arab News. “The main priority will be for the players to feel the pride of representing their own country. From a professional point of view, it is clear the World Cup will represent the highest level they have ever played at, so our role has been to get the players to reach that level and be ready to play to their potential.”
Unlike Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach who successfully steered the side through the qualifying stages, Pizzi was more than happy to move to Riyadh. The benefits of living in the country that you will represent to the world are untold, he said.
“Since we started working with the Saudi national team we have lived their permanently,” he said. “We wanted this because we need to live the experience as much as we can — not only the football, but the culture, the people, the emotions and excitement and expectations of the World Cup.
“When you live and work inside the country, you are doing the football part, of course, but you are also carrying out your social obligations, too, and better understand the cultures and behaviors. 
“I was positively surprised in truth by the different culture and the chance to experience it all. To be honest, we have found a lot of warmth and respect in our day-to-day life. Now we understand better and are able to share the ambitions of the people in Saudi Arabia.”
Pizzi, who coached Chile to Copa America glory in 2016 and, as a result, led them at the Confederations Cup here last summer, said that while he intends to bring joy to the Saudi fans, he and his team are aware of the dangers that Russia bring. The hosts are without a win in their past seven international matches, but unlike the Green Falcons, they have enjoyed a period of relative stability with coach Stanislav Cherchesov having been at the helm since August 2016. That, plus a home advantage, make the opening game all the more difficult.
“For the past two years, Russia have been working with the same head coach and much the same squad, so they are settled and have that stability and familiarity,” Pizzi said. “Physically, they are very strong and we will need to find solutions to overcome this advantage of theirs.
“We are obviously going to face a very motivated opponent, playing at home in front of their expectant fans. Although their level has decreased in the past six months, we respect them and appreciate that not only do they have potential to be a good team, but they will have the home support, too.
“What we hope is that our strategy will force them to play a different way and they will fear their own fans turning on them.”
Indeed, the mood around the Russia camp has been largely negative ahead of today’s match. Several of the host side’s players have canceled their social media accounts and are avoiding local press. It is easy to understand why. The headline in yesterday’s The Moscow Times read: “Ageing and Inexperienced: Why Russia Is Doomed to Fail.” 
The Saudi fans dancing on the streets of Moscow this week will be hoping the local press are correct. After days, months and years of waiting, the day is finally here. The team is ready, the fans are in position, the world is watching. The ball, tonight, is at the feet of the Green Falcons.


Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City ease past Huddersfield to cut Liverpool’s Premier League lead

Updated 20 January 2019
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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City ease past Huddersfield to cut Liverpool’s Premier League lead

HUDDERSFIELD: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was far from satisfied despite a 3-0 win away to Huddersfield Town on Sunday that saw his side cut Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League table to four points.
Liverpool’s compelling 4-3 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday heaped huge pressure back onto reigning champions City but they were rarely troubled by a Town side that look a certain bet for relegation this season.
City’s first goal, a deflected strike for Danilo in the 18th minute, brought up their 100th goal of the season in all competitions before Raheem Sterling scored a diving header from Leroy Sane’s cross in the 54th minute and Sane himself made it 3-0 with a calm finish just two minutes later.
For Guardiola, it should have been an afternoon of enjoyment as his side again proved their willingness to push Liverpool all the way this season.
The City manager, however, has forged a footballing reputation based on sublime performances as well as ruthless goalscoring and, on that basis, his team’s showing in West Yorkshire was not a success as the visitors never really clicked into gear on a day against a Huddersfield side who had parted company with manager David Wagner on Monday.
“During the season you have these kind of games,” Guardiola said. “It is important to win. We have scored many goals in all competitions.
“(But) the way we played, we didn’t deserve more than three goals. We will improve in the future.
“We have to demand more from ourselves in every game and do our best, but sometimes it’s difficult.
“Today we are happy we have won but after immediately we have to analyze. During the season you have games when maybe you are not in the top level and it is important to win these games.”
Although City’s fans were happier than their manager following this result, Guardiola could at least take some heart from the fact his side again refused to blink first in the race for the title.
For the second consecutive week, City kicked off knowing Liverpool had already won their weekend fixture and that, consequently, the onus was back on his players to secure three points as well.
Once again, Guardiola’s side managed to do that following up the 3-0 victory over Wolves with this showing and the City manager was more than happy to remind everybody that silverware is not handed out for another four months.
“One team has been better but we’re in January and there’s many more games to play,” he added.
“You don’t win or lose the Premier League in January. We have to focus on what we have to do. If Liverpool win, we have to win. And if Liverpool lose then we also have to win.”
This match was a baptism of fire for Huddersfield’s caretaker boss Mark Hudson and while the Terriers showed impressive fight to inspire some hope this season, this defeat still left them 10 points adrift of safety.
If, as expected, the Borussia Dortmund Under-23 coach Jan Siewert is appointed as Wagner’s permanent replacement, nobody would blame him if he spent his first day in the job preparing for a return to the second-tier Championship next season.
“It’s been a long week,” admitted Hudson.