Green Falcons ready to bear responsibility of a nation at Russia 2018

Saudi Arabia’s Osama Hawsawi duels for the ball with Germany’s Julian Draxler during the friendly between Germany and Saudi Arabia at the BayArena in Leverkusen. The eyes of the world will be on Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi side when they play in the opening game of the 21st World Cup against Russia on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 09 June 2018
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Green Falcons ready to bear responsibility of a nation at Russia 2018

  • The Green Falcons finished their World Cup preparations, with a 2-1 reversal, against Germany on Friday night and now nerves will be starting to jangle ahead of the tournament curtain-raiser.
  • Saudi Arabia midfielder Hattan Bahebri: “First, our priority is not just to be part of the World Cup, but also to have good results and reach the round of 16 and more.”

LONDON: Saudi Arabia midfielder Hattan Bahebri said the enormity of being involved in the opening game of the World Cup is starting to sink in for the Green Falcons and revealed there is an inner belief in the squad to do more than just make up the numbers in Russia.
Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side launch the 21st World Cup against Russia on Thursday and, if the audience of 290 million for the opener in 2014 is anything to go by, they can expect the eyes of the world to be on them. The Green Falcons finished their World Cup preparations, with a 2-1 reversal, against Germany on Friday night and now nerves will be starting to jangle ahead of the tournament curtain-raiser.
“The closer we get to the first game, the bigger the responsibility,” Bahebri said in a video interview on the Saudi Football Federation’s Twitter account. “It is a huge event. It is the World Cup. It is a huge responsibility to me and my teammates. I hope we will fulfill the expectations of our fans.”
Saudi Arabia are the second lowest ranked side in the World Cup — Russia are the lowest at 70 — so expectations are low, but with Egypt not in great form and without Mohamed Salah for at least some of the group stage, there is a feeling the Green Falcons could seriously contend for the second spot in the group behind Uruguay.
“First, our priority is not just to be part of the World Cup, but also to have good results and reach the round of the 16 and more,” Bahebri said. “We are now focusing on our game with Russia, and we will work on winning it.”
The squad is heading to Russia without Nawaf Al-Abed, the Al-Hilal playmaker who scored five goals in qualifying, but who only managed to play 22 minutes under Pizzi because of injury. The Argentinian felt he could not take a chance on a player who has not started a game since Jan. 8 because of a groin injury.
“The coach takes the decisions and I guess Nawaf is injured and hopefully he will get better,” midfielder Hussain Al-Mogahwi said. “He sat with the coach and talked to him about everything. Nawaf is a hero, and the four others who were left out with him are also champions.”
Saudi Arabia will be nothing if not fully prepared for what Group A has to throw at them. They have played Italy, Peru and Germany — sides all ranked in the top 20 — in their last three friendlies and the nine matches they have played this year is more than any other side at the World Cup.
“The two friendly games with Peru and Italy will get us ready,” said Al-Mogahwi. “During the game with Italy, we weren’t focused and afraid, but all the players played well and we had a good game. We had many opportunities ... We could have tied the game if we had scored. During the game with Peru, the coach changed the squad and honestly, we were good, but luck was not on our side. We got a good experience from the friendly games. The games in the World Cup will have the same level.”


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.