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.


'We want to make Saudi Arabia proud': Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

Updated 21 June 2018
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'We want to make Saudi Arabia proud': Pizzi promises better showing against Egypt

  • Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday
  • Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious

ROSTOV-ON-DON: “Keeping possession of the ball seems to be the absolute and most important thing, but then when you sometimes find issues in getting the ball into your opponent’s half, you have to find other movements and ways of doing that,” said Oscar Tabarez after watching his lackluster Uruguay rely on a solitary Luis Suarez goal to eliminate Saudi Arabia from the World Cup. 
Tabarez was talking about his own team’s struggles, yet the assessment is considerably more applicable to the Green Falcons, who dominated possession and retained the ball with ease in midfield, yet for the second match running looked absolutely bereft of ideas in the final third. With Uruguay and Russia now on six points, Saudi Arabia cannot progress from Group A even if they defeat Egypt in their final game on Monday.
The Green Falcons coach Juan Antonio Pizzi confirmed he intends to stay at the helm of the side for the long-haul, yet is only too aware that the potential of this team is being hamstrung by its inability to score. He called it “our weakness”, adding that his side enjoyed “good ball possession, but no effectiveness”. They, he said, did not have the sufficient “weapons or tools” to equalize.
Pizzi’s side have found the net now just twice in their past five games and against Uruguay managed only three shots on target in 90 minutes — two of which came in added time and were so tame they would hardly have troubled the opposition goalkeeper Fernando Muslera had he been relaxing at his far post sipping a drink. In the 5-0 defeat to Russia last week, they failed to muster a single shot on target. 
Wednesday’s overall performance was much improved, yet a lack of penetrative passing was obvious. One passage of play in the opening exchanges saw Saudi Arabia complete 16 passes untroubled without the ball entering the opposition penalty box. When Uruguay finally won possession, they required only four quick exchanges to find Edinson Cavani on the left wing drilling the ball across the front of goal. 
“I don’t share that assessment,” said Pizzi, when it was put to him that his team was too slow to attack. “We played at the speed that was necessary. We need to be accurate, but if you step up the speed you lose accuracy with your passes. We had control of the game and that was why.”
Striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi had been the focal point of much criticism from Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi’s General Sports Authority, after the Russia “fiasco” and was dropped from the side against Uruguay. So too was goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, another who Al-Sheikh name-checked as having been at fault.
Pizzi, asked whether the scathing assessment from his bosses had forced his hand when it came to team selection, calmly dismissed the suggestion. He also ruled out the notion that administrative issues between the players and the country’s football federation had caused unrest in his squad.
“I have a list of 23 players here and they are all available to play. We are here together and pushing in the same direction. 
“I wanted — and still want — to make the Saudi Arabian people feel proud of our energy and the desire we show in matches. Unfortunately we were unable to do that against Russia and will be playing our next match without any hope of progressing. I hope now they will feel a little more proud even though we are out of the World Cup,” he said.