Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

Abdullah Otayf is dejected after Saudi Arabia lost 1-0 to Uruguay. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2018
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Saudi Arabia produce improved display but still exit World Cup

  • Luis Suarez wins Group A clash with goal after 23 minutes
  • Green Falcons go toe-to-toe with South Americans, but looked a bit toothless in attack

LONDON: It came too late to save Saudi Arabia’s World Cup hopes, but this was much more like it from the Green Falcons.
The record books will show that Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side are now without a win in 12 World Cup games and bowed out of this tournament with one game to spare, but this was a restorative afternoon in Rostov, a day when the Green Falcons put some pride back in the shirt.
The team received criticism from senior figures in the Kingdom after rolling over against Russia and they knew they needed to front up against Uruguay. Some of their international futures may have depended on it. The players did just that, mixing it with the two-time winners and showing that they did, after all, belong at this exalted level.
The big frustration for Pizzi will be that Uruguay did not have to work hard for their winning goal, recalled keeper Mohammed Al-Owais handing it to Luis Suarez on a plate with a piece of goalkeeping he will not look back on with any fondness. Suarez could not believe his luck that he was gift-wrapped a goal with which to mark his 100th international appearance. It undid such a promising start from the men in white.
The Green Falcons’ response to falling behind was impressive, though, full of intent and no little skill as they went toe to toe with the South American giants. They actually ended the first half with 57 percent of the possession and registered more attempts on target than their more vaunted opponents. This is what the Saudi Arabians packed into the muggy Rostov Stadium had come to see, their team giving their all and representing more than the sum of their parts. This was why the Green Falcons had finished ahead of Australia in qualifying.

For Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, he was left to rue a lack of fire-power up front against the Uruguyans.

Speaking to the media immediately after the game, Pizzi said: "We kept the ball well, we had the majority of the posession, but we just did not have the weapons needed up front to equalize.

"We played at a much better level than in the Russia game, and that is more our style of play, but we just did not have the right tools to break Uruguay down."

The problem of scoring goals at this lofty level remains — this was the ninth time in 11 finals games they had failed to score — but that is a long-standing issue that was never going to be solved overnight. Most importantly, Pizzi got the type of reaction he was looking for after a performance against the hosts he described as “shameful.” Pizzi shook things up by dropping Omar Hawsawi, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, Abdullah Al-Mayoof and Yahya Al-Shehri, bringing in Al-Owais, Ali Hadi Al-Bulaihi, Hatan Bahbri and Fahad Al-Muwallad. The changes largely worked a treat, with Bahbri looking particularly lively cutting it from the right.
Saudi Arabia started brightly and on the front foot. They forced the first corner, won a free-kick on the edge of the Uruguay box and Al-Bulaihi showed more defensive resilience in blocking an early shot from Suarez than the Green Falcons did in the entire 90 minutes of the World Cup opener. You would not have known which team was ranked 14th and which was ranked 67th.
But the bright start was punctured just past the 20-minute mark. Al-Owais came to collect a corner but completely mis-judged the flight. He flapped at the ball with his left hand, got nowhere near it and that left Suarez with the simple task of slotting into an empty net with his left foot. It was the Barcelona man’s sixth goal in 10 World Cup games. He will not score an easier one.
It would have been easy for Saudi Arabia to fold like they did against Russia, but they showed they are made of sterner stuff than we first thought. Al-Muwallad shot over the bar from a tight angle, Bahbri forced a smart save from the Uruguay keeper and then the same player shot over at full stretch soon after. It was an encouraging response. Abdullah Otayf then left his mark soon after on Edison Cavani. Salem Al-Dawsari then clattered Matias Vecino. The Uruguayans knew they were in a game.
Saudi Arabia even recovered from the blow of losing key midfielder Taiseer Al-Jassam to injury before half-time, but Housain Al-Mogahwi came on and slotted in seamlessly. The most impressive thing about the performance was the control their midfield three enjoyed in the center of the field.
With their hopes of staying the tournament at stake, Pizzi might have thrown caution to the wind earlier than he did in the second half and throw on Al-Sahlawi, Al-Shehri or Muhannad Assiri. But he was just so worried about being opened up on the counterattack and risking another humiliation. With 15 minutes, he eventually opted for the height of Mohamed Kanno and the sharp-shooting of squad top-scorer Al-Sahlawi and asked his team to go more direct. They huffed and puffed but they just lacked the subtlety and muscle to breach a Uruguay defense marshalled by the wily Diego Godin. They will not be first to encounter that problem and certainly not the last.


Arsenal, Chelsea win in Europa League as Rangers hold Villarreal

Aubameyang opened the scoring in London after 32 minutes of the Group E encounter. (Reuters)
Updated 21 September 2018
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Arsenal, Chelsea win in Europa League as Rangers hold Villarreal

  • I think we played well in the first half and in the beginning of the second as well: Aubameyang
  • Chelsea made a winning start to their Group L campaign as Willian's seventh-minute effort was enough to see off PAOK

PARIS: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struck twice as Arsenal defeated Ukraine's Vorskla Poltava 4-2 in the Europa League on Thursday, while in-form Chelsea began their campaign with a 1-0 win away to PAOK in Greece.
Aubameyang has struggled to hit top gear in the Premier League so far with just one goal in five starts, but the Gabon striker opened the scoring in London after 32 minutes of the Group E encounter.
Danny Welbeck nodded in a second just after half-time and Aubameyang curled in the Gunners' third, with Mesut Ozil also on target before a lapse in concentration saw Vorskla hit back with two late goals.
"I think we played well in the first half and in the beginning of the second as well," Aubameyang told BT Sport.
"We have to improve and try to fight not to concede a goal like we did in the last minute."
Premier League leaders Chelsea made a winning start to their Group L campaign as Willian's seventh-minute effort was enough to see off PAOK at a hostile Toumba Stadium.
Eden Hazard was omitted from the Chelsea squad at his own request due to fatigue, but manager Maurizio Sarri fielded a strong side as the Blues extended their winning run to six games in all competitions.
"We were in control of the match for 90 minutes. We had a lot of opportunities. We missed them and so I'm very happy with the three points, very happy with the performance, but not very happy with the result," said Sarri.
"When it's time to kill the match, we have to kill the match."
Steven Gerrard's Rangers acquitted themselves well on their first appearance in the group stage of a European competition since the 2010-11 Champions League, as they came away with a 2-2 draw against Villarreal.
A disastrous start for the Glasgow side saw Carlos Bacca fire Villarreal ahead inside 60 seconds, but Scott Arfield turned home a cross from Daniel Candeias to level on 67 minutes.
Gerard Moreno put the hosts back in front almost immediately, only for Kyle Lafferty to again hit back for Rangers as Gerrard's men made a solid start in Group G.
Leigh Griffiths hit a late winner for Celtic in a 1-0 home victory over Rosenborg, a team Brendan Rodgers' side knocked out in this season's Champions League qualifying rounds.
Salzburg triumphed in the clash of Red Bulls in the other Group B fixture as Fredrik Gulbrandsen scored a minute from time to give the Austrian club a 3-2 victory over RB Leipzig.
Marseille, last season's runners-up, slumped to a 2-1 home defeat by Eintracht Frankfurt in Group H as Luka Jovic grabbed an 89th-minute winner for the reigning German Cup champions.
Lucas Ocampos opened the scoring early for Marseille, who were playing behind closed doors at the Stade Velodrome after numerous crowd incidents last season.
But Lucas Torro levelled on 52 minutes for Eintracht before Jovic's late strike won it.
Dudelange, the first Luxembourg team to play in the Europa League group stage, made seven-time European champions AC Milan work hard for a 1-0 win in Group F.
Luxembourg's Grand Duke Henri and Grand Duchess Maria Teresa were in the crowd as Dudelange, who have a dozen non-professional players in their squad, succumbed to a deflected second-half goal by Gonzalo Higuain.
Record five-time winners Sevilla launched their Group J campaign with a 5-1 rout of Standard Liege, as Ever Banega and Wissam Ben Yedder both netted twice for the Spaniards.