5 talking points from Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Palestine

Saudi Arabia comprehensively beat Palestine 5-0 in Riyadh on Tuesday. (Twitter: @SaudiNT)
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Updated 01 April 2021

5 talking points from Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Palestine

5 talking points from Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 World Cup qualifying win over Palestine
  • Herve Renard’s team moves to top of group with victory in Riyadh in front of returning fans

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.

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Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics
Updated 32 min 33 sec ago

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics

Saudi Arabia’s footballers to take on Brazil, Germany, Ivory Coast at Tokyo Olympics
  • Only other Arab team involved, Egypt, will face Argentina, Spain, Australia

RIYADH: If Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not at their best this summer, then their stay at Tokyo 2020 will not be a long one.

When there are only 16 teams at an international tournament then there can be no room for error — Wednesday’s draw for the upcoming Olympic football tournament was evidence of that.

There are three possible reactions for fans in Cairo and Riyadh and throughout the two countries: Fear, excitement, or a heady mix of both.

For Saudi Arabia, the first place to check out the history of their opponents is to watch the final of the 2016 Olympics as both teams are in their group. Brazil beat Germany in the gold-medal match in Rio and both will take on the young Green Falcons in Japan.

Saad Al-Shehri’s team is probably going to have to win the opening game against Ivory Coast. Three points on July 22 in Yokohama will provide hope going into the game against Germany three days later.

That will be easier said than done but there is hope for Saudi Arabia, a team that has no players in Europe and does not have to worry about the Copa America that takes place from June 13 to July 10.

After the most hectic and physically punishing season in the history of modern football in Europe, clubs there may not automatically release all the players that national team coaches want — there is sure to be some negotiation.

Ivory Coast are there because of their performances at the 2019 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations. They may not have won the tournament, but they came as close as it is possible to get. The final against Egypt was all square after 90 minutes but the Young Pharaohs got the all-important goal in extra-time. The preliminary squad chosen by Les Petits Elephants is full of European-based players.

But it is Germany next for a Saudi team that has not appeared at the Olympics since 1996.

There is a wealth of talent available to the team that finished runners-up at the 2019 European U-21 Championships. Suffice to say that whoever goes to Japan, there will be a team with the kind of top-level international experience that Saudi Arabia cannot match. Most, or almost all, of the squad, will be Bundesliga-based.

There had been suggestions that Thomas Muller might be one of the squad’s overage players, but the Bayern Munich star has ruled himself out. Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund and Christoph Kramer of Borussia Monchengladbach should be there.

German coach Stefan Kuntz is under no illusions as to the tough task ahead.

He said: “Eighty to 90 percent of the players in the Ivory Coast play in Europe. I saw Saudi Arabia at the Asian Championships in Thailand; the team has an unusual style and a special mentality.

“And you don’t really have to say much about Brazil — we all remember great duels between the senior national teams and the final of the 2016 Olympic Games.”

Brazil’s players certainly remember. The gold-medal winners from 2016 usually take the tournament seriously but then there is the Copa America that finishes just before the Olympics start. What can be said for sure is that the country has an embarrassment of riches at home and at big clubs in Europe’s big leagues. Coach Andre Jardine is going to find it hard deciding who to leave out.

If Saudi Arabia have been grouped with the runners-up of South America and Europe, then Egypt are not going to have much sympathy as they find themselves with the champions of both continents.

The African titleholders, who reached the quarterfinals in 2012 in their first appearance at the Olympics since 1992, will take on Argentina, Spain, and Australia.

Argentina are two-time gold medalists and last year finished above Brazil in South America’s qualification tournament, winning six games out of seven. Co-hosting Copa America may complicate things, especially in terms of overage choices but coach Fernando Batista has lots of talent to call upon. This is likely to include Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, New York City’s Valentin Castellanos, Julian Alvarez of River Plate, and Granada’s Nehuen Perez.

Spain need no introduction. Even if the likes of Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba will not, as have been discussed, head east as overage players, there will be some top-class talent from the big leagues. Stars such as RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo, a standout in the 2019 European U-21 win; Ansu Fati is just 18 but has already played for Barcelona; and Ferran Torres, the winger who joined Manchester City for around £20 million ($27.7 million) last year. Also on City’s books, and perhaps the plane to Tokyo, is center-back Eric Garcia.

And Australia? The Olyroos will not get many headlines ahead of the tournament but are not just there to make up the numbers and they will be competitive.

It all adds up to a formidable challenge for the Arab nations.

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures
Updated 22 April 2021

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures
  • Al-Jazira top the table with 50 points, followed by Baniyas on 49 and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on 43
  • Fujairah and Hatta occupy the two relegation spots at the bottom of the table

The UAE Pro League (known for sponsorship reasons as the Arabian Gulf League) has announced the dates of its remaining fixtures, the Emirates News Agency reported on Thursday.

With three rounds of fixtures still to be played following a short break to accommodate the AFC Champions League group stages, Al-Jazira top the table with 50 points, followed by Baniyas on 49 and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on 43. Fujairah and Hatta occupy the two relegation spots at the bottom of the table.

For each of the remaining rounds, all teams will compete on the same day. Matchweek 24 will be played on Monday, May 3, with Ittihad Kalba vs. Al-Ain, Al-Wasl vs. Khorfakkan, and Al-Nasr vs. Al-Dhafra all kicking off at 9 p.m. UAE time. The games between Sharjah and Hatta, Ajman and Al-Jazira, Fujairah and Al-Wahda, and Bani Yas and Shabab Al-Ahli will kick off at 11 p.m.

The 25th round of games will be held on Friday, May 7, with Khorfakkan vs. Fujairah, Ajman vs. Sharjah, and Hatta vs. Ittihad Kalba kicking off at 9 p.m. and Al-Jazira vs. Al-Ain, Al-Dhafra vs. Bani Yas, Al-Wahda vs. Al-Nasr, and Shabab Al-Ahli vs. Al-Wasl kicking off at 11 p.m.

The final round of matches on Tuesday, May 11 will see Al-Jazira take on Khorfakkan, Al-Ain vs. Hatta, Fujairah vs. Ajman, Ittihad Kalba vs. Sharjah, Al-Wasl vs. Al-Dhafra, Bani Yas vs. Al-Wahda, and Al-Nasr vs. Shabab Al-Ahli. Kick-off times have yet to be confirmed.

The UAE Pro League said in a statement that it had arranged the fixtures to ensure equal opportunities for all teams, whether they are competing for the title, battling to avoid relegation, or aiming to secure a place in next season’s AFC Champions League.

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
Updated 22 April 2021

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
  • Three goals in 24 minutes saw Abu Dhabi team claim all three points against Qatari opponents

RIYADH: Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate has revealed his delight with his players’ attitude after the Abu Dhabi team on Tuesday recovered from a two-goal deficit to defeat Al-Rayyan SC 3-2 in Group E of the 2021 AFC Champions League.

Fares Juma’s stoppage-time winner secured Al-Wahda their first win of the campaign, taking them to second in the group on four points, five behind leaders Persepolis who defeated FC Goa 2-1 in the other Tuesday match.

Dutchman ten Cate praised his players for the fightback that saw three goals in 24 minutes dramatically defeat their Qatari opponents.

Speaking to the AFC official website, he said: “I’m a proud man. Especially to see where we are coming from. We had to play with a man down in the last 15 minutes and needed some luck. You need to have luck to win games and we had some today.

“I brought in a few players late in the second half and one of them was a 16-year-old (Awadh Mohamed). Then suddenly something changed within the team. Those players changed the way the game was played. They brought some renewed energy to the team and scored one goal.

“I’m extremely proud of my team, I know how much this win means to them. We have injured players, with little rest to restore our strength and I’m really happy with their team effort. Everybody in the UAE should be proud,” he added.

Al-Rayyan were the better side for most of the first half but started to fade after the break, and another collapse followed after a similar one against Persepolis.

After another three goals were conceded having taken the lead, Al-Rayyan find themselves at the bottom of Group E with coach Laurent Blanc admitting that the latest defeat to Al-Wahda has made things more difficult for the club’s progress into the Round of 16.

“It was a disaster. Honestly, I felt we played well. It was incredible the way we played. But we made some mistakes and conceded goals,” Blanc told the AFC website.

“I think both teams wanted to play good football and as you can see it was not a boring match. At the end of the day, to lose the match at this stage of the competition makes things complicated for us.

“If anyone saw us up by two goals, it should be 3-0 and then game over. But instead, we conceded and lost the match. That is football,” the Frenchman said.

Al-Rayyan will have a chance to make amends when the two teams square off again on Friday.

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
Updated 22 April 2021

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr edge closer to knockout stages while Al-Ahli finale claimed first win

RIYADH: At the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League plenty has happened for the three Saudi Arabian representatives and all are in with a chance of making the next stage.

In the latest round of matches, Al-Nassr drew 1-1 with Foolad of Iran to stay top of a tight Group D with five points; Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A; and Al-Ahli picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Shorta of Iraq and now have four points in Group C.

Here are five things we learned about Matchday Three.

1. There is a danger of recent history repeating itself

It is just a few months since Al-Hilal were forced to withdraw from the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tore through the squad and staff.

Al-Nassr are not at that stage yet but the fact that five players and four other members of the club have tested positive is of huge concern to everyone. If it gets worse, then there is a real danger that the nine-time Saudi Arabian champions could be out.

As coach Mano Menezes pointed out, it is not just about the players who have contracted COVID-19, there are psychological effects among those who are still playing. “We must find new ways to compensate for the absence of players due to the coronavirus,” the Brazilian boss said.

“I am concerned about the effect on the players psychologically, and on the group as well and that is something that we have to think about.”

2. From now it is all about fitness and squad depth

Six games in the space of 15 days are going to be a punishing schedule especially given the time of year and the conditions in Saudi Arabia. Now the real tests come.

There is no time for training, just rest, recovery, and preparation. Coaches will have to rotate and will need to use all their experience to get the best out of their squads. Those with the strongest benches will have the best chance of getting through.

Tractor FC head coach Rasoul Khatibi spoke for many after his team’s 0-0 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

“After the 70th minute our players were exhausted and both teams had to stay focused to see it through. For the next match, we will make sure we have a quick recovery to avoid this experience of losing energy in the latter part of the game. The team with the better recovery will have a better chance in the next match,” he said.

3. Hattan Bahebri steps forward for Al-Hilal

The encouraging thing for the three-time champions is that various players have stepped forward in the games so far. That was the case in the 3-1 win over Istiklol.

It was always going to be that the Tajikistan powerhouse would sit back and allow the Saudi champions possession, and it was used to very good effect by Hattan Bahebri who set up the opener and then grabbed two goals of his own. Both were delightful finishes. The first saw the winger cut inside on the edge of the area and the second was a cheeky chip that was worthy of winning any game.

A repeat performance against the same team on Saturday will leave Al-Hilal with one foot in the second round and Bahebri an even brighter reputation.

4. Al-Nassr show what they are made of

It was not a surprise that Al-Nassr were not as impressive in their 1-1 draw with Foolad as when defeating Al-Sadd three days earlier.

Injuries and absences took their toll and given that, it was a decent performance, and they were perhaps a little unlucky not to collect three points against solid Iranian opposition.

The goal conceded was a little weak and could have been avoided had usual No. 1 Brad Jones been available.

Once again, coach Mano Menezes looked to hit the opposition on the counter as much as possible and had the finishing been a little better and the Iranian goalkeeper not made a couple of excellent saves, then three points could have been taken.

If Al-Nassr can avoid losing more players due to COVID-19 and continue playing this way, then a place in the second round is very much within reach.

5. Al-Ahli break the streak

After 10 games without a win, a dismal run that included seven defeats, Al-Ahli finally tasted victory with a 3-0 victory over Al-Shorta of Iraq.

The opposition may have been the weakest team in the group but had the Saudi team failed to win it would have been hard to see a way back in the group.

It was a nervy start but once the Jeddah club took the lead, they looked fairly comfortable and saw the game out.

The question is, what happens next? Can Al-Ahli actually make it out of the group? Just challenging would be a step in the right direction. Another win against the same opposition would put the three-time Saudi champions right in the mix.

That would mean they would have to get something against Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, but the confidence would be there and there would be a chance. That is the ideal scenario and gets the team back on track.

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
Updated 22 April 2021

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
  • Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi challenged the Saudi cricket team to a friendly match

KARACHI: Players from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise, Peshawar Zalmi, have said they were excited to be “the first team from Pakistan” to play a friendly match in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi wished the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) the best over its media partnership with Arab News, and challenged the Saudi cricket team to play a friendly match against Peshawar Zalmi. SACF accepted the challenge. A date for the match has yet to be announced.

Peshawar Zalmi have won the title of Pakistan’s hugely popular Pakistan Super League once, and been a runner-up twice since the tournament’s launch in 2016. Arab News Pakistan has been an international media partner for Peshawar Zalmi since 2020.

“This will be the first team of Pakistan to go and play in Saudi Arabia,” Kamran Akmal, a wicket-keeper batsman who opens the innings for the team, told Arab News in an interview last week.

“International players will come (to Saudi Arabia) to play cricket. So, they will also get experience ... This is a good sign when players like Wahab Riaz (Peshawar Zalmi captain) and international players like Saqib (English bowler) will go there ... their young players will get good experience.”

“They (Saudi Arabia) will get to know how to improve cricket, how the environment should be, how other teams play, so it’s a good sign for Saudi cricket,” Akmal added.

Speaking to Arab News, Peshawar Zalmi captain Riaz said a friendly match between his team and the Saudi team would be a “great opportunity.”

“It’s really good that a country like Saudi Arabia is taking interest in cricket, because they are well known for football mostly. So, it’s a great challenge for us as well. And it’s going to be a fun game, honestly, to play against the Saudis, so they will get some experience as well,” Riaz added.

He said he hoped Saudi Arabia would develop a good team in the coming years and that Peshawar Zalmi would have some role to play in their development.

“Because in Peshawar Zalmi, you know, a lot of Pakistan and international players are playing. So that will give them (Saudi team) some confidence, that will give them some experience,” Riaz said. “And then I think with the passage of time, they will start working on their skills and they will become better.”

Sending a message to the around 2.6 million Pakistanis who live in Saudi Arabia, Riaz invited them to come and watch Peshawar Zalmi play Saudi Arabia.

“My message to them is that they should come, they should see us, they should support both of us, even Saudi Arabia team,” the team captain said. “They can take that entertainment and excitement which they have been missing from the last few years. The message is they should always come support both the teams and enjoy the game.”

In March, Pakistan suspended the PSL tournament after seven team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. The series is expected to resume in June.