‘Saudi Arabia have the players to stop Mohamed Salah,’ says Green Falcons coach

Mohamed Salah is in red hot form heading into the World Cup. (Reuters)
Updated 09 May 2018
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‘Saudi Arabia have the players to stop Mohamed Salah,’ says Green Falcons coach

  • Saudi meet Egypt in Russia on June 25
  • Coach Pizzi believes his defenders can shackle the prolific forward

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has insisted his players are capable of taming Egypt superstar Mohamed Salah when the two sides do battle at the World Cup.
Salah has enjoyed a remarkable debut season at Liverpool, with his 43 goals in 49 games for the Reds leading to him being named the PFA Footballer of the Year last week.
The forward has continually delivered in big matches, netting 11 times in the Champions League to fire Liverpool into this month’s final against Real Madrid.
Salah has also excelled with Egypt, finishing as top scorer in World Cup qualifying and famously keeping his cool to slot the 94th-minute penalty against Congo that secured the Pharaohs spot in Russia.
Against Portugal in March, Salah’s strike looked to have secured an impressive friendly victory until Cristiano Ronaldo struck two stoppage time goals to steal away victory.
Those performances have led to heightened expectations in Egypt ahead of the World Cup, with fans hoping that Salah can continue his talismanic form in Russia and help his nation escape from Group A.
But despite recognizing Salah’s danger, Saudi coach Pizzi believes that his team can keep the 25-year-old at bay when they face off in the final group stage match in Volgograd on June 25.
“Mohamed Salah is a very, very talented, player,” Pizzi told Arab News at the AFC Asian Cup draw in Dubai. “His level at the moment is extremely high and he is certainly one of the best players in the world right now, if not the top on his current form. But of course we believe in our players. We have some fantastic defenders and we have confidence in our team, in the skills of our players. There will be no special plans for Salah but for sure we have the players who can stop him. We expect a good performance against Egypt; we expect a good performance in all of our group games.”
Keeping Salah quiet will be an uphill task for a Saudi defense that conceded four against world-class opposition in its last friendly outing. Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku scored twice as Belgium put the Green Falcons to the sword with a 4-0 victory.
Pizzi’s side also shipped four goals in a 4-1 defeat to Iraq in February but there are still five friendly matches to play — against Algeria, Greece, Italy, Peru and Germany — before the World Cup, with defensive solidity imperative if Saudi Arabia are to reach the last-16.
Before they face Salah’s Egypt in their final World Cup group game, the Green Falcons take on Uruguay and, first, hosts Russia in the tournament’s curtain raiser on June 14.
And while Pizzi has analyzed all of Saudi Arabia’s group opponents carefully, the Argentine insisted is not looking further than that opening clash with Russia in Moscow.
“Our plan is working very well for the World Cup,” Pizzi said. “All of the training camps have gone very well and the players understand very well what we are trying to do. Our focus is totally on the first game against Russia. The players are working very hard toward that match.”


Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

Updated 20 September 2019

Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

  • Pep Guardiola’s side are 5 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool

MANCHESTER: Fernandinho stepped seamlessly into Manchester City’s backline in midweek to ease Pep Guardiola’s defensive woes but the Premier League champions know their stretched resources will be tested by a physical Watford side on Saturday.

The clubs last met in the FA Cup final in May, with City romping to a 6-0 victory to complete the first-ever domestic treble in English football history.

But just four months later Guardiola, whose side are already five points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool, is facing a serious headache at the back, with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones out for significant spells.

Frenchman Laporte, described as the best left-sided defender in Europe by Guardiola, is out until at least February after injuring knee ligaments in the recent win over Brighton.

That left Stones, whose start to the season was hampered by injury, as the only specialist center-half left to partner Nicolas Otamendi, a player who has not been an automatic first choice for some time.

England defender Stones, however, suffered a muscle injury in training and reports suggest he could be out for four to five weeks.

City appear to be paying the price for a curious strategy in the transfer market.

Over the past two years, they have shown strong interest in Virgil van Dijk and Harry Maguire, only to balk at paying what turned out to be world record transfer fees for defenders.

Van Dijk went to Liverpool for £75 million ($93m) while Maguire ended up at Manchester United for £80m.

Given the vast wealth of the City’s Abu Dhabi ownership, and the fact they have broken their own club transfer record in each of the past two summers, such caution when it comes to signing center-halves seems curious.

Guardiola also famously spent big on three fullbacks — Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy — in a matter of days in 2017 which makes his, and City’s, refusal to compete with Liverpool and United for center-halves all the more baffling.

The upshot of their approach was that they failed to replace veteran club skipper Vincent Kompany, who returned to Belgium.

City’s refusal to go toe to toe with their rivals means they face Watford, and new manager Quique Sanchez Flores, with only Otamendi as a fit, specialist central defender.

Watford are bottom of the league but come into the match buoyant after recovering from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Arsenal.

At least Guardiola has a ready-made solution, with defensive midfielder Fernandinho playing at center-back for the midweek visit to Shakhtar Donetsk, where City won 3-0.

The City manager has long spoken of moving Fernandinho back into that position as his career draws to a close although his hand has been forced by the injuries.

“That’s why he is so important for us,” said Guardiola after the victory in his side’s Champions League opener.

“We don’t have many choices. I think he is the only one I have. Other players can play in that position but Fernandinho is a clever player and so intelligent — an incredible guy.

“He did well the first game he played. Of course he has a lot of experience and personality, and what he says the people follow him in the locker room so it’s important.”

Right-back Walker is another player who could move into the center of defense in an emergency but, with Fernandinho in the veteran stage of his career now at 34, Guardiola is one injury away from a full-blown crisis.