Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s late equalizer on Saturday against Palestine kept Saudi Arabia’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup alive.
It means that the mission against Morocco on Tuesday in the final Group C game is a simple one: Win and hope Jordan lose.
It will be far from easy as Morocco have been the best team in the tournament so far. The Atlas Lions have won both of their games 4-0. In contrast, Saudi Arabia started the campaign with a 1-0 defeat against Jordan and then drew 1-1 with Palestine. It leaves Morocco top of the group with six points, Jordan second with three, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine with one each.
The spine of the Moroccan team has looked very solid indeed. Badr Benoun has taken the captain’s armband and has been leading from the center of defense in impressive fashion. The midfield of Yahya Jabrane, Abdelilah Hafidi and Wallid El Karti has worked well and worked hard together with Ismail El Haddad and Achraf Bencharki (the Zamalek forward has been a standout). They have looked good in attack, and goals have flowed.
If Morocco won so convincingly against a Jordan team that should have defeated Saudi Arabia by more than one goal, then what chance does this young Saudi team, essentially an under-23 side, have?
There is always hope and, in this case, there is some positive news. One is that goal difference may help. Should the Green Falcons win, then a draw will not be enough for Jordan against Palestine. They will have to win.
Also, the fact that Morocco have been so good means at least that they have already secured a place in the last eight and almost certainly taken first place. It is a talented lineup, but with the quarter-final coming on Saturday, it is likely that players will be rested.
Even so, Moroccan goalkeeper Abdelali Mhamdi has warned the Asian powerhouse that the North Africans are not about to take it easy, especially as the team will also be roared on by a healthy contingent of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Qatar.
“We want to end the group stage with another victory that will enhance our confidence,” the 30 year old, who plays his club football for Saudi Arabian club Abha, said. “We will not take things easy, but we will play with the same energy and intensity that we did in the first two games.”
Whatever the opposition, there is a lot to do for Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen what the lineup is, given that eight changes were made for the 1-1 draw with Palestine. Abdullah Al-Hamdan did not start, but came off the bench to score the vital goal that means that this game is not a dead rubber. It has turned the Arab Cup campaign around, potentially, and many in Saudi Arabia will be hoping that it ends up doing the same with the striker’s career.
At the very least, it will be a confidence boost for the former Al-Shabab striker. His big move to Al-Hilal in February looked significant for the then 21 year old. He has, however, struggled for playing time at the Asian champions with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis and Moussa Marega ahead of him in the domestic pecking order.
His instincts were on display on Saturday as he steered the ball home.
“I do not care whether I score or my teammates score as we just want to win. The team comes first,” he said.
Al-Hamdan knows what needs to be done against Morocco.
“We made the task difficult for ourselves, but there is nothing impossible in football,” he said. “We know very well that the Moroccan national team is strong, but we will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage.”
It will also be a test for Laurent Bonadei. The assistant coach of the senior team is in the dugout while Herve Renard watches from the stands. Bonadei has already invoked the spirit of the 2019 Gulf Cup when Saudi Arabia recovered from an opening game loss to reach the final of the tournament.
If the number two can steer what is a young and inexperienced team into a similar position, then it will be a fine achievement for all and another sign that Saudi Arabian football is heading in the right direction. It will all be decided against Morocco on Tuesday.