Tuesday’s crunch World Cup showdown between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan could hinge on one yellow card received and one escaped last Friday.
Salem Al-Dawsari broke the deadlock against Singapore to claim a vital win but also picked up a second booking to rule him out of the big game, while Al-Nassr star Jaloliddin Masharipov scored the only goal in Uzbekistan’s 1-0 win over Yemen, and despite concerns from his coach, escaped Al-Dawsari’s fate and will be raring to go in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia needs just a draw to be sure of a place in the third round of qualification and are playing at home, but such advantages mean that it has all the pressure too. A misstep could see dreams of a sixth World Cup appearance go up in smoke.
Al-Dawsari has saved Saudi Arabia before and should the Green Falcons go all the way to Qatar, fans will once again be in the debt of the Al-Hilal star. Last Friday, the country sat back and expected a regulation win over Singapore who had just lost 4-0 to Palestine and 5-0 to Uzbekistan, but with five minutes remaining it was 0-0.
Then up stepped the captain to score and change the mood and send his team on the way to a 3-0 win and three vital points to ensure that avoiding defeat on Tuesday will be enough.
It was a frustrating evening for coach Herve Renard who was relieved with the end result but disappointed that, just before half-time, his main man picked up a second yellow card in qualification and will sit out the big game.
“My message to Asian referees is to protect the players from rough play,” said the Frenchman. “Al-Dawsari and Abdulelah Al-Maiki got yellow cards because they reacted to that. We will miss them against Uzbekistan.”
Right-back Mohammed Al-Breik went off injured in the second half with a back injury and remains doubtful but there is better news in that Al-Hilal midfielder Abdullah Otayf is available after serving his suspension.
“All matches are difficult,” added Renard, who took Morocco to the 2018 World Cup. “Singapore were difficult and Uzbekistan had a difficult time against Yemen. We got the right result in the end and now we look forward.”
The Frenchman refused to be drawn on how he will approach a game in which he just needs to avoid defeat to go through to the third round of qualification — due to start in September — as one of the eight group winners. Should Saudi Arabia lose, however, it will have to progress as one of the best four runners-up and it is a route that can be complicated.
It has become more complex in May after the withdrawal of North Korea from qualification, which means that the results against the fifth-placed teams are not counted. If Yemen finish bottom of Group D, this would be good news for Saudi Arabia as it would only lose four of the 17 points collected and a total of 13 would be more than enough. Yet if Yemen defeat Palestine then Singapore would drop into fifth and that would mean a loss of six points and then things really would get messy — much better to leave no room for doubt.
A draw may be enough for Uzbekistan to finish as one of the four best runners-up, but it may not. The need to win may actually play into their hands. The White Wolves have a reputation for choking when the pressure is on after failing in the past despite being in good positions to qualify for the 2006, 2014 and 2018 tournaments. This time however, the Central Asians are not in pole position and have little room for error.
“We know what we have to do,” said Uzbekistan coach Vadim Abramov. “Our objective when qualification restarted was not to lose before we head into the final game and we have done that.” In fact the team has won all three games without conceding a single goal.
Masharipov, loaned out last season by Al-Nassr to Dubai’s Shabab Al-Ahli, has been in sparkling form of late with three goals in the last two games. A sublime attacking performance against Singapore was followed by a more dogged display in the win over Yemen, in which he scored the only goal of the game. Despite picking up a yellow card earlier in qualification, Abramov admitted that he gambled on the 27-year-old not getting another one on Friday.
“Masharipov was playing below his full potential today,” the coach said. “The caution associated with the yellow card has had its effect on him. I had to keep him on the pitch until the end of the match as things were close, but I knew he was a smart guy and wouldn’t get a yellow card.”
Herve Renard, and all Saudi Arabian fans, will be hoping that Al-Dawsari’s failure to do the same will not come back to haunt them.