Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons through to Asian Games knockout stages despite 3-0 defeat to North Korea

Mohammad Maizn Albassas of Saudi Arabia (C) fights for the ball with Hang Yong Thae of North Korea (R) (AFP)
Updated 20 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia’s Young Falcons through to Asian Games knockout stages despite 3-0 defeat to North Korea

  • Young Falcons have wings clipped but still fly into second round after heavy defeat.
  • Saudi Arabia qualify as one of the best third-placed teams.

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.


NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams one game away from glory

Updated 19 January 2019
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NFL PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Patriots, Chiefs, Saints and Rams one game away from glory

LONDON: And then there were just four.

The NFL’s conference championship games kick off on Sunday, with the Patriots and Chiefs contesting the AFC side of the draw, the Saints and Rams facing off in the NFC. With just one game standing between the four sides and a shot at Super Bowl glory, Arab News examines why each team can make it to Atlanta for the Feb. 3 showdown.

AFC: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS vs NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Put simply, the Chiefs can win their match-up with the Patriots — and probably the whole thing — because of Patrick Mahomes. If he performs at the scintillating levels he has produced since the very first week, New England will find him too hot to handle.

Mahomes’ first season as a starter has been nothing short of miraculous, it was the second-best single season by a quarterback in NFL history. In a full 16-game season, he managed to complete 66 percent of his passes for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, with a 113.8 passer rating. He is just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a single season, after Peyton Manning’s heroics in 2013.

And Mahomes’ efforts were needed for this Chiefs outfit who managed a 12-4 record in the regular season, despite their defense allowing a whopping 26.3 points per game. The defensive line could be the Chiefs’ downfall, but given the brilliance of Mahomes this season, fans at the Arrowhead could well be celebrating a first Super Bowl appearance since 1970.

Meanwhile, there will come a time when preview pieces such as these will have to stop featuring Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s Patriots. But, despite not being at their metronomic best, that time is not now. The New England juggernaut just keeps rolling on. A win next month in the Big Game would be the Patriots’ sixth title since 2001, and the secret to their success in winning the previous five has been coach Belichick and quarterback Brady’s ability to outsmart any opponent. If the legendary duo can come up with a way to do the same to Andy Reid’s Chiefs, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thought the Patriots would not go all the way.

In the final weeks of the regular season and first rounds of the playoffs, the Patriots also improved their running game immeasurably. It all clicked into place against the Chargers in the divisional game where Sony Michel looked unstoppable. Couple this with the traditionally blistering pass game of Brady-Gronkowski-Edelman, and that air of invincibility so associated with the Patriots will once again shroud the greatest team of the 21st century.

NFC: NEW ORLEANS SAINTS vs LOS ANGELES RAMS


Outside of Missouri, Boston and California, New Orleans are most people’s pick for Super Bowl glory this year. And aside from the emotional attachment many NFL fans have to the Saints, their performances on the field this year would warrant a second title in a decade. They will need to come out of blocks early, though, as their slow starts in the regular season threatened to lose them games they should have won easily. The Rams have a fantastic offensive line, and if the Saints are asleep in the opening stages, they could find themselves two scores behind in the blink of an eye.

Coach Sean Payton is renowned for taking risks — think the fake punt against Philadelphia in the division game last week — and always seems more comfortable calling plays when ahead. And while usually ruthless at killing games off, it was the Rams who almost pulled off a remarkable comeback in the Superdome earlier this year. The Saints will need that ruthless streak if they are to win it all.

It has been a breathtaking turnaround for the Rams since they appointed head coach Sean McVay— the youngest coach in modern NFL history — in 2017. After years of mediocrity in St. Louis and a poor start after returning to LA, McVay has revolutionized this franchise, which now find themselves one game away from the Super Bowl.

In Jared Goff, too, they have a superstar quarterback — protecting him from the workmanlike defense of the Saints will be key if the Rams are to upset the apple cart and overcome New Orleans. If Goff stays safe in the pocket and the Rams utilize a mixed offensive game, the Rams faithful could be traipsing east for the big one next month, knowing their team has beaten one of the best on the way to a fairytale ending to the season.