BASRA: Saudi Arabia crashed to a 4-1 defeat to Iraq in Basra on Wednesday. The defeat hit the Green Falcons’ World Cup preparations, with the result illustrating the size of the job Juan Antonio Pizzi has on his hands with the showpiece kicking off just in four months.
Here are five things we learned from the defeat in Basra.
A SHORTAGE OF FIREPOWER… AGAIN
At the risk of sounding like a broken record the Green Falcons are in desperate need of some teeth in attack. There was no question that Saudi Arabia played the more expansive football against Iraq, with plenty of intricate passing from the likes of Mohammad Al-Shalhoub, Mohammed Al-Kwikbi and Hassan Al-Raheb. But while they can call on a host of technically gifted midfield players, there is still a major lack of penetration up front. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s decision not to play any out-and-out forward was indicative of the lack of striking options — as was the fact Saudi Arabia’s only goal came from a full-back, and courtesy of a calamitous goalkeeping error. Pizzi has previously labelled his striking void “a deficiency” but if no Saudi strikers step up soon, it may transform into a disaster.
CRUMBLING UNDER PRESSURE
In front of a raucous home crowd of more than 60,000, Saudi Arabia struggled to handle the pressure cooker atmosphere of a highly partisan arena. This does not bode well with just four months until their World Cup opener against Russia at Moscow’s 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium. While the Green Falcons enjoy incredible support on their own turf, they have had much less experience of such big occasions away from home. A 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory in Thailand (attendance 41,000) is really the only recent example of a victory when a packed stadium has been against them. Improved mental strength will be key if Saudi Arabia are to avoid being overawed in June.
COUNTERING THE COUNTER-ATTACK
Beyond all the diplomacy and politics surrounding Wednesday’s friendly, the choice of Iraq as an opponent was also supposed to be because of their similar playing style to Egypt. If that is the case, Saudi Arabia should be worried. Iraq do not possess anywhere near the quality of the Pharaohs, yet their aggressive counter-attacking style exposed some major weaknesses in the Saudi backline. Saeed Alyami was replaced by Mohammed Jahfali after his own goal but it did little to solve the susceptibility to pace on the counter in the second half. If the Green Falcons struggled against Mohannad Ali and Humam Tariq, there should be genuine concern at the prospect of Egypt’s Mahmoud Kahraba and Mohamed Salah in Russia.
PIZZI UNDER PRESSURE
It seems a little ridiculous to question a football coach’s position just two games into his new job but Juan Antonio Pizzi will be only too aware of the size of the task he has taken on. These may only be “friendlies” but that term means little when you are four months out form a World Cup: Every match matters. Progression and results are expected so, like it or not, the pressure is already on Pizzi ahead of the clash with Ukraine later this month.
BASRA BEDAZZLES AS FIFA LOOK ON
The stars of the show in Basra were the Iraqi fans, who turned up in their tens of thousands to see Saudi Arabia’s first match on Iraqi soil in four decades. Beyond the packed stadium, another 10,000 people stood outside the ground watching the game on screens. It was a magnificent show of unity and while FIFA president Gianni Infantino was unable to accept an invitation to attend, Iraqi officials expect him to land in the country within the next couple of months. The hope is that FIFA deem Iraq ready to host competitive international football again. On this evidence, the decision should be an easy one for Infantino and Co. to make.