RIYADH: Saudi Arabia comprehensively beat Palestine 5-0 in Riyadh on Tuesday to move into pole position in Group D of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Yasser Al-Shahrani opened the scoring for Herve Renard’s team eight minutes before the break with a well-placed header and Fahad Al-Muwallad made it two shortly after. Two smart finishes early in the second half from Saleh Al-Shehri sealed the win and captain Salem Al-Dawsari added a late fifth from the spot.
With five games played and three remaining, the Green Falcons have 11 points, two ahead of Uzbekistan and four clear of Singapore. With only the eight group winners in the second round, along with the four best second-placed teams, progressing to the third round, there is still much to play for when the remaining fixtures take place in Saudi Arabia in June.
Here are five things we learned from the match:
1. It was a perfect evening and the third round beckons
In Tuesday’s only other World Cup qualifier, Japan thrashed Mongolia 14-0 but the feeling ahead of the game in Riyadh was that just a single goal would be enough to settle the affair.
From the start, Palestine got plenty of men behind the ball and when not in possession, which was most of the time, reverted to a 6-3-1 formation. Before the game, the whispers coming out of the visitors’ camp was that they would keep it tight and look to hit what they felt was a weak Saudi central defense in the hope of a goal.
It did not happen and while Saudi Arabia took time to get going, they ran out easy winners to take control of Group D. Apart from the occasional moment, the defense looked solid, the midfield was full of energy and running, and the forwards looked dangerous every time they attacked.
Saudi Arabia’s three remaining games are on home soil and assuming that Yemen and Singapore are defeated, a draw against Uzbekistan on June 15 will be enough to progress.
2. Goalkeeping errors on both sides a turning point
The game turned on three goalkeeping mistakes. The first was from Saudi Arabia shot-stopper Mohammed Al-Owais which was not punished. The 29-year-old has plenty of international experience (at least compared to the other three ’keepers named in the squad, none of which had a single cap between them).
But he did not have a great deal to do in the game which is why concentration is paramount. Just 10 minutes before the break, the Al-Ahli No. 1 spilled a simple looking cross from Mahmoud Abu Warda and Saleh Chihadeh almost put Palestine in front.
Just minutes after, Al-Owais’ opposite number Tawfiq Ali made two mistakes, and both were punished. And that was the game. In the 1-0 win over Kuwait last week, Saudi Arabia had lots of chances but did not make the most of them. We warned that the Green Falcons would have to be more clinical against Palestine and they were.
3. Palestine’s World Cup dreams all but over
There was some controversy in Palestine with a number of experienced players not being selected for the trip in what was a crucial game. In truth, the team were always unlikely to get to Qatar next year or even progress to the third stage of qualification, but they will be disappointed at how it ended.
After spending the first half-hour getting a foothold in the game, as soon as the deadlock was broken, there was only one team going to win.
It means that Palestine are bottom of the group with just four points from six games. In theory, a second-placed finish is not impossible but in reality, it is not going to happen, and Palestine are now going to have to focus on not finishing bottom of the group below Yemen and Singapore and keeping their hopes of qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup alive.
4. Likes of Al-Ghanam and Al-Shehri give Renard welcome selection headaches
While Palestine did not present either Al-Shahrani or Sultan Al-Ghanam with too many defensive headaches, the full-backs did what they needed to do at the back and got forward well.
Neither started against Kuwait but both impressed here. Al-Shahrani opened the scoring with a finish that any striker would be proud of while Al-Ghanam was lively going forward and created the third with vision and skill. It was well-finished by Al-Shehri who staked his claim to be back in attack for June’s games. There is much for the coach to think about.
5. It is great to see fans back
The King Saud International Stadium was sparsely populated but there were some fans present, extremely socially distanced of course. It did not feel quite like a real game, but it was a welcome return to something approaching normality.
The players were not the only ones making the noise. It was not just about the goals but the surge of excitement when a player beat another, the ripple of anticipation when the team moved to within sight of goal, the appreciation of a good save or strong tackle was there. If more fans are allowed in for June’s qualifiers, then so much the better.