BRUSSELS: On a cold Tuesday night at the King Baudouin Stadium, Saudi Arabia were put to the sword by a brilliant and balanced Belgium team, beaten 4-0 and outplayed from start to finish. Juan Antonio Pizzi, however, can take heart: Not only did his players persevere with his passing and pressing philosophy, they will also not face a team of this calibre when they arrive in Moscow to contest Group A at this summer’s World Cup.
With less than 80 days until Saudi meet Russia in the month-long tournament’s opening match, Pizzi had spoken of his desire to gauge the level of his team. Belgium, ranked fifth in the world by Fifa and with a frightening level of strength-in-depth, offered a means of testing his players. Despite the result, he cut a content figure post-match.
The 49-year-old Argentine coach had made four changes to the team that drew with Ukraine on Friday, replacing three of his back five. Goalkeeper Fawaz Al Qarni started ahead of Yasser Al-Mosailem, despite the latter being named man of the match in Marbella; Motaz Hawsawi came in for captain Osama Hawsawi; and right-back Yasir Al-Shahrani dropped to the bench in place of Al-Shabab’s Hassan Fallatah. In midfield, Yahia Al Shehri, who played his first match of 2018 last week having failed to break into the Levante team since his January loan, was replaced by Al Ahli’s Housain Al-Mogahwi.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, meanwhile, stayed true to his word, naming a full-strength team that included the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen. Toby Alderweireld, who had made just one appearance since limping off for Tottenham against Real Madrid in November, partnered Vincent Kompany in defense, while Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku were paired in attack.
Almost immediately, it was evident a long night — and sharp learning curve for the visitors — lay ahead. Inside the first five minutes, Lukaku used his strength to feed Mertens, whose shot was deflected and when Lukaku’s own shot was parried moments later, he was able to collect the rebound and pick out Yannick Carrasco, who saw his powerful drive saved.
At the other end, Mohammed Al-Sahlawi was struggling to find space among a tall wall of yellow shirts, while Salem Al-Dawsari, another of the La Liga loanees, showed good energy but repeatedly gave away possession after dribbling his way into good positions. It was the Villarreal winger’s misplaced pass that eventually ran into the path of Fahad Al-Muwallad for Saudi’s first shot on goal.
If that was their good luck, the 13th minute brought a chance in fortune. Fallatah’s error found De Bruyne in the middle of the park and he quickly fed Lukaku, who had time to shift it on to his left foot and drill low for his 32nd goal in 66 games.
Lukaku added his second five minutes before half-time, holding off two defenders and rolling the ball past Al-Qarni after Hazard had picked him out in a crowded penalty area. While Belgium were dominating, Saudi were sticking to Pizzi’s philosophy, but it proved as much to their detriment as it did their credit. Misplaced passes in dangerous areas were happening far too often and only skewed shots from Hazard and Mertens kept the scoreline down.
Pizzi replaced Fallatah with Al-Shahrani and the injured Al-Qarna with Al-Mosailem at half-time, but it did little to stem the flow of attacks. PSG’s Thomas Meunier spurned a header over before De Bruyne saw his near-post shot saved.
Pizzi tweaked things again just before the hour mark, removing the impotent Al-Sahlawi for winger Salman Muwashar and pushing Al-Muwallad up front. It almost paid off. The Levante attacker was found with space in the penalty box, but as he rounded Mignolet, he fell to the ground and the chance was gone; the referee was unmoved by the Saudi calls for a penalty.
Al-Muwallad’s effort would prove Saudi’s best chance of the second half, but only served to poke the proverbial bear, as Belgium upped their intensity.
Lukaku should have completed his hat-trick, but saw his shot blocked by a last ditch tackle, then in the 77th minute Omar Hawsawi let the ball bounce inside his penalty box and was punished by substitute Michy Batshuayi. Ninety seconds later, the excellent De Bruyne added his side’s fourth, breaking at pace and feeding Lukaku, who returned it to the Manchester City midfielder to fire in from distance.
Beaten and bruised but with valuable experience gained, Saudi can now turn their attention toward May’s training camp, when friendlies with Algeria and Greece will provide a better indication of what can be expected from Pizzi and his players in Russia.
SAUDI: Al Qarni (Al Mosailem, 45); Fallatah (Al Shahrani, 45), Omar Hawsawi, M Hawsawi (Jahfali, 86), Al Harbi; Otayf, Al Moqahwi, Al Jassim (c) (Al-Khaibari), Al Muwallad (Al-Shehri, 68), Al Dawsari; Al Sahlawi (Muwashar 54).
BELGIUM: Mignolet; Meunier, Alderweireld, Kompany (Vermaelen, 45), Vertonghen; Witsel, De Bruyne (Dembele, 84), E. Hazard (c) (Batshuayi, 59), Carrasco (Limbombe, 45); Mertens (Nainggolan, 59), R. Lukaku (Mirallas, 79)