LONDON: Saudi Arabia returned to international football action in style on Saturday evening in Riyadh with a 3-0 win over Jamaica in their first game of 2020.
First-half goals from Salem Al-Dawsari and Saleh Al-Shehri put the Green Falcons in control, with substitute Firas Albirakan adding a third before the end to secure a comfortable, encouraging and deserved victory.
It was a measured performance from the clinical hosts, ranked 67 in the world, against the visitors placed 19 spots higher, in an empty Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.
While it was understandable that there was some rustiness in the home team, with coronavirus causing all official games to be postponed, coach Herve Renard will have been delighted with the energy, work-rate and commitment that his players showed in a game that, at times, did not feel like a friendly.
Some of the thunderous challenges on display, especially a first-half two-footed tackle from Mohammed Al-Khabrani, could have resulted in a red card in a competitive match.
The home team started brightly and were ahead after just 10 minutes. Al-Dawsari saw his spot-kick, awarded after Kemar Lawrence handled in the area, well-saved by Dwayne Miller, but the Saudi star was on hand to fire in the rebound from close range.
The Reggae Boyz came within a whisker of leveling just before the half-hour. A low ball from the right fizzed across the Saudi area with Norman Campbell getting a touch from close range, but Mohammed Al-Yami reacted quickly to palm the ball away from danger. It was the closest Jamaica came to a goal.
On the stroke of half-time, it was 2-0. Lawrence was robbed of possession just outside his own area by the ever alert Ayman Yahya. A simple but effective pass found Al-Shehri just inside the area and the forward made no mistake, tucking the ball in the bottom corner.
Saudi Arabia were looking increasingly fluent going forward, and at the start of the second-half a slick build-up resulted in a corner that saw Ahmed Sharahili’s header comfortably saved by Miller. The pressure kept coming from the home team, but they were struggling to create clear enough chances to put the game to bed.
That all changed 14 minutes from the end when another slick attack ended in the third goal.
The impressive Al-Dawsari won possession in the center-circle and advanced to the edge of the Jamaican area where the former Villarreal slipped the ball to Abdullah Alhamddan who, in turn, squared it to Albirakan to side-foot into the net from close range.
The bonus of a clean sheet rarely looked in danger as the home team remained solid at the back, denying Jamaica time and space as well as a clear sight of goal.
Jamaica will get a quick chance of revenge as the two teams meet again on Tuesday at the same venue, but for Saudi Arabia, there is plenty to build on.
“The result was good but the performance could have been batter,” said Abdulellah Al Malki. “This was our first match of 2020. Yes, there was some understanding between players who play with each other regularly, but hopefully in the coming matches we can be even better and reach our goals.”
The Al-Ittihad midfielder believes the match was a good test ahead of the return to the World Cup qualifiers next March.
“Jamaica is a strong team and ranked 20 (FIFA) spots higher than us, but we went in with a winning mentality, and we are eager to play players of this standard,” he added. “As soon as you enter the training camp with the national team, you instantly feel a sense of unity with the other players, and I think that may help us in the coming period.”
Hussein Al Sadiq, general manager of the Saudi team was pleased with the result after such a long lay-off.
“After being away for a significant period, over 11 months, to have this result and performance is positive,” he said.
“The first half the performance was not too convincing, but it improved in the second half. We have a young group in this training camp who need to acclimatise and who need more matches. This will be difficult, as after this international break, the next one will be in March.
“In general, this was a very good outing, in terms of the players’ fitness and performances. And the new additions also played very well, and we have high expectations for them with the team. As everyone knows, Mr Renard is always looking to add youth to the national team, something he has done everywhere he has coached. This gives us a lot of optimism for the future.”
Miller’s disappointment with his team’s performance was somewhat tempered by the fact that the Jamaican players had barely spent any time together since March.
“Our preparation wasn’t the best,” he said. “We didn’t get the chance to familiarise ourselves with some of the new players. You could see some of the combination plays weren’t coming off, but it’s a work in progress. We have a couple of days before our second game, and hopefully we can give a better showing of ourselves.”
Miller, one of his nations most experienced players, said the ultimate goal remains qualification to the 2022 World Cup
“Our expectation is to go all the way to the next World Cup in Qatar,” he said. “All our focus now is on trying to gel together. I think that’s one of our biggest issues, I think we need to come together, because the talent is there. Once we get things organised together, then you’ll see a different team.”
The two teams will now face each other again on Tuesday at King Abdullah Sports City stadium.