JAKARTA: From flying high to almost flying home, Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons came within a goal of going from group leaders to bottom of the table after losing 3-0 to North Korea in their final Group F match at the Asian Games. They ultimately squeaked to the knockout stages as one of the best third-placed teams and will now meet China on Friday.
Arriving full of confidence and with one foot already in the second round, coach Saad Al-Shehri rested seven of the 11 players who started his side’s win against Myanmar on Friday. That meant a much-changed back five, with Al-Ittihad’s Amin Al-Bukhari in goal and Al-Ahli duo Mohammed Al-Zubaidi and Mohammed Al-Bassas, both making their Asian Games debuts alongside ever-presents Abdullah Tarmin and Awn Al-Saluli.
“We came here with the objective of preparing our players for the U23 Asian Championships,” said Al-Shehri. “For that reason, we gave a chance to some of the players who had not been involved yet and I think they are better than they showed here.”
Al-Shehri’s tinkering backfired as, inside two minutes and with their first effort on goal, North Korea were ahead. A corner from Kwang-myong Jo was met by the head of Yong-il Kim who directed it past Al-Bukhari with ease as his defenders looked on in confusion; the marking as tight as a wizard’s sleeve.
Saudi Arabia had arrived at the Wibawa Mukti Stadium top of Group F and all-but securely through to the Round of 16, yet the goal changed everything. Suddenly, a three-goal Myanmar win against Iran threatened to put the Young Falcons’ place in the knock-out stages in serious jeopardy.
“We arrived without thinking too much about the qualifying, be it finishing first, second or third,” Al-Shehri added.
“We tried to give game time to other players and of course sometimes the decisions you make impact the likely outcomes. Either way though, as a team, you want to play strong teams, so for that we will keep our focus and continue our development.”
The Saudi Arabia players seemed to understand the consequences of conceding that early goal. Nerves took hold with Al-Bukhari, the debutant goalkeeper, allowing a pass to run under his foot, scrambling back desperately to avoid further embarrassment, while loose balls were being hoofed clear in panic. Al-Shehri crouched on the sideline, as motionless as his midfield.
North Korea, well-beaten by the Iranians three days earlier, looked more dynamic and determined throughout, pressing intensely and holding back nothing in their tackles. Saudi, in contrast, were meek. In the 25th minute, they fell further behind. Woeful defending allowed Korea a free shot at goal from close range and Al-Bukhari’s parried save was turned into the net by striker Yu-song Kim.
“Korea are good team, well organised and strong, but we are better than we showed here,” said Al-Shehri.
“Now we must look at the performance, face forward towards the future, and focus on improving.”
Al-Shehri refrained from making changes at half-time, yet his side did not improve. Just six minutes after the restart, and again from a corner, Korea notched their third. At 1.94m, Ittihad’s Awn Al-Saluli was the tallest outfield player by some distance, yet he was slow to react when Yu-song Kim squeezed in front of him to header home his second goal of the afternoon.
The rushed introduction of Nawaf Al-Habasi and Haroune Camara gave Saudi more of a physical presence and Abdulrahman Ghareeb saw his shot tipped around the post, but it was Korea who came closest to the game’s fourth. Al-Zubaidi was dispossessed while playing out from the back and raced back to make a last-ditch tackle, winning the ball cleanly. Tajikstani referee Nasrullo Kabirov, however, deemed it a foul and produced a red card only to change his mind after speaking with his fourth official.
“He will be criticised, but I thought it was good from the referee to acknowledge he had made a mistake and change his decision,” Al-Shehri added. “For sure, it was not a red card and he accepted that. Other officials may not have done that, so he deserves some credit.”
With news filtering through that Myanmar were beating Iran 2-0 and chasing a third, Saudi pushed forward seeking a vital goal. It was not to arrive, but neither was a goal for Myanmar, ultimately allowing the Young Falcons, wings clipped, to stumble through to the knock-out stages.
China, winners of group C and with three wins from three, await.