Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games clash against Iran

Abdulelah Alamri training area of the Asian Games group match against Iran. (SAFF)
Updated 15 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games clash against Iran

  • Young Falcons hopeful of a semifinal spot.
  • Under-23 players keen on making a name for themselves in Indonesia.

JAKARTA: There is a widely held belief that to succeed in sport, you must start early.
Officials from the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee will be hoping it rings true this month as the Kingdom’s Under-23 football team prepares to prematurely kick-off its Asian Games campaign this afternoon in Jakarta, three days before the continent’s largest multi-sport competition officially begins.
Similar to the Olympics, the football tournament starts before the opening ceremony and finishes on the competition’s final day, Sept. 2. The fledgling Young Falcons face Iran today at the 28,000-capacity Wibawa Mukti Stadium in the Indonesian capital.
The Saudi NOC have brought a delegation of 169 athletes, including eight females, and will compete across 22 disciplines, including athletics, shooting, taekwondo and volleyball. The three-week Asian Games operate both as a continental precursor and, at times, a qualifying tournament for 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Young Falcons made their football debut at the Asian Games in South Korea four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals in Incheon, before losing to Iraq. Their regional neighbors were inspired by legendary striker Younes Mahmoud, who had been included as one of Iraq’s three over-age players and scored twice in a 3-0 win.
Yet the impact of Mahmoud in Korea has not influenced the team’s selection. With the Saudi Pro League starting next week, coach Saad Al-Shehri has opted to forego athletes older than 23, instead selecting a squad consisting primarily of Al-Ahli development players and a smattering of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq-based youths.
“We haven’t brought any overage players because we are playing here as preparation for the U23 Asian Cup, which will offer qualification for Tokyo 2020,” said Faisal Almarashdi, a spokesman for the team.
“We have brought to Indonesia only players who are 21 or under as they will all be eligible for Tokyo. Many have already played at the Under-20 World Cup under coach Saad, so there was never any discussion to use the three allocated over-age slots.”
Abdullah Otayf is the model example of how Asian Games experience can help a young career. Four years ago, the deep-lying midfielder was part of the squad that traveled to Korea. This summer he was an integral part of the Green Falcons side that played at the World Cup in Russia. 
With national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi following the competition from afar, there will be chances to catch the eye for the likes of striker Haroune Camara and midfielders Abdullah Yahya Magrshi and Ali Hassan Al-Asmari ahead of January’s Asian Cup. Both midfielders have already made their full debuts for Ahli and featured in the Jeddah club’s Champions League campaign last season, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Camara was included in Pizzi’s provisional World Cup squad before being cut from the final 23.
“These Asian Games are very important for the young players involved,” Almarashdi added.
“They are the future of the senior team so if they play well here and at the U23 Asian Cup then, we hope, they will go to Tokyo 2020. From then on the pathway to the senior team is already very clear.”  
Much like the seniors, the U23 side is both short and slight, with only two of the 10 midfielders and forwards standing above 5 foot 8 (172m). Today’s opponents Iran are not only taller and more physical, they also have, in Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjčar, a manager who knows West Asian football after short spells in Qatar and the UAE. In their most recent preparation match, Iran lost 3-2 to China. 
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, beat the UAE last week in Malaysia following a pair of friendlies against local sides. Today’s match will kick-off at 4 p.m. local time, midday in Saudi Arabia.


Mohamed Salah sure Liverpool can handle the pressure of Premier League title tilt

Updated 6 min 49 sec ago
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Mohamed Salah sure Liverpool can handle the pressure of Premier League title tilt

  • Reds face Manchester United on Sunday in crouch clash.
  • Egyptian ace says Reds will embrace the pressure as they g in each of first top-flight title since 1990.

LONDON: Mohamed Salah is in no doubt Liverpool can handle the pressure of the title run in, ahead of their crunch clash against arch-rivals Manchester United.
The Reds lie second in the Premier League table to Manchester City on goal difference, though with a game in hand. It was barely a month ago that they enjoyed a seven-point lead over the Abu Dhabi-owed club, but draws against Leicester and West Ham raised fears that Liverpool were starting to feel the strain of bidding for a first top-flight title since 1990.
But Salah has sought to put fans’ fears at ease, claiming the Reds are ready to embrace the pressure, starting away at Old Trafford against familiar foe United.
“I said in November that there is pressure and it will be there until the end of the season, because when you play for the Premier League you have to accept that there is pressure,” Salah told Sky Sports.
“When you go home you can take it with you, but it can help you to work harder and focus on your game.
“At the end of the day you have a target in your mind, you have a dream, you want to win the Premier League. I even said that two years ago when I came — it is a dream to win the Premier League.”
Added to the pressure of trying to win the title is the fact that a clash against Manchester United is like nothing else the Reds come up against all season. The two teams are arch-rivals and Salah is only too aware that their North West neighbors would like nothing more than to ruin the Reds’ title charge.
The United encounter is the first of three tough fixtures in a week for Liverpool, with a midweek clash with Watford and the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park on Sunday to come — a run of games that is not lost on Salah.
“It is a very big week for us,” Salah said. “And if we win three games and are top of the table, that is huge for us. When you have three games in a week or ten days, you just need to win, win, win, then after that you have time to think.
“Even when we are not top of the league, I know how much United want to win against Liverpool and Everton the same. For me it is not a big deal. We just need to do what we have been doing for the last couple of months.”