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.


Naomi Osaka shocked as Kristina Mladenovic downs world No. 1 in Dubai

Updated 5 min 39 sec ago
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Naomi Osaka shocked as Kristina Mladenovic downs world No. 1 in Dubai

  • It was Osaka's first match since she won the Australian Open — her second consecutive Grand Slam title.
  • World No. 67 Mladenovic lost for words after surprise win.

DUBAI: Naomi Osaka stumbled badly in her first match since winning the Australian Open as the world number one went down in a flurry of errors to exit the Dubai Championships on Tuesday.
Dubai-based Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic claimed a 6-3, 6-3 victory to reach the third round as Osaka made 25 unforced errors.
The rout, which featured seven breaks of the Osaka serve, took barely an hour, sending Mladenovic into a Wednesday contest with Carla Suarez Navarro.
“This is my home tournament, I live here,” world No. 67 Mladenovic said. “It’s great to get a win like this in front of a big crowd.
“Beating the number one is always special.”
The second set was riddled with seven consecutive breaks of serve before Mladenovic finished off the job with a winner to the empty court on match point.
Osaka stunned the tennis world last week by announcing her split from coach Sascha Bajin despite winning back-to-back Grand Slam titles at the US and Australian Opens.
She said earlier this week that she would not prioritize “success over happiness” when asked about the sacking, and she never looked like winning in Dubai as she also served five double faults.
Earlier on Tuesday, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both won their opening matches, while Elina Svitolina made a strong start to her bid for a third straight title.
Kvitova, the 2013 winner, recovered from losing a first-set tiebreak to defeat Katerina Siniakova 6-7 (3/7), 6-4, 6-4 and squeeze into the third round.
Halep, Dubai champion in 2015, saw off 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard 7-6 (7/4), 6-4.
The Romanian said she is still feeling the effects of her weekend final defeat in Doha by Elize Mertens.
“It was a good match because I won it. I tried to finish the points faster because I’m a little bit tired,” Halep said.
“She played well, the level was pretty good. At some points I really ran very well. I’m confident. I feel good on court even if I’m tired.”
A third former world number one also advanced as Angelique Kerber beat Dalila Jakupovic 7-6 (7/4), 6-3.
Kvitova, Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, said she was unfazed about the early midday start to her match.
“I don’t really care if I play the first match,” the Australian Open runner-up said. “Now I’m done, so I have a free afternoon.
“I’m not sure what I’m pleased with... maybe with my comeback at the end.”