RIYADH: Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard has warned his players not to underestimate Yemen ahead of their second-round World Cup qualifier on Saturday in Riyadh, issuing a reminder of the earlier Group D meeting between the two teams.
Victory will take the Green Falcons soaring five points clear at the top of the standings, for 48 hours at least, above Uzbekistan and in sight of the third round of qualification when the action really gets going. It is, however, far from a foregone conclusion.
Back in September 2019, the Saudis had to come back twice against Yemen, playing in their temporary home of Bahrain, only managing to escape with a 2-2 draw thanks to goals from Hattan Bahebri and Salem Al-Dawsari. It was a game that Renard, appointed just weeks earlier, remembers well.
He said: “We had a difficult start in that game against Yemen in Bahrain. I had not long been the coach and I did not know much about the players. We did not play well, and it was a really tough game.”
Over time, the Frenchman, who took Morocco to the 2018 World Cup, where the team missed out on the second round but impressed with their performances against Spain and Portugal, has become happier.
“We had a training camp soon after and we started to improve but it showed that you have to always be at your best when playing World Cup qualification.”
It is only Saudi Arabia’s second World Cup qualifier in the space of 19 months, the other coming in a 5-0 win over Palestine in March, and the game against Yemen in Riyadh marks the start of a period of activity. There will be two games in the days to follow against Singapore and, on June 15, a potential showdown against the only rival for top spot, Uzbekistan.
The final game against Uzbekistan may well end up being the one that decides the winner of Group D and which team will progress automatically to the third round of qualification and not have to worry about finishing as one of the best four runners-up in the eight groups.
By taking maximum points against Yemen and then Singapore, the three-time Asian champions will — in the worst-case scenario — only need a point against Uzbekistan to secure top spot. But beating Yemen will immediately put the Central Asians five points behind and under pressure going into their own clash against Singapore on Monday.
With all the games taking place in the centralized hub of Riyadh in order to reduce travel in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is looking good for Saudi Arabia, but Renard is taking nothing for granted.
“Getting to the World Cup was always my objective when coming to Saudi Arabia. We have improved but the road is still long and there is still potential to improve more. We have to take the opportunities and it is very important that we do not miss out on the World Cup in Qatar.
“Given the close distance between the two countries, and as long as fans are allowed in stadiums, there will be many Saudi fans to cheer us on. It is important then that we make it for the fans and the national team,” he added.
There are few injury worries for the coach with Al-Hilal right-back Mohammed Al-Breik and Al-Nassr center-back Abdulelah Al-Amri expected to shake off knocks.
The players have, however, just finished a long, hectic, and difficult season both at home in the league, and for the top stars, the AFC Champions League. After all testing negative for COVID-19, training started in Riyadh on Tuesday and stepped up a gear on Wednesday.
Yemen have the opposite problem, an almost total lack of games and match sharpness. The ongoing conflict in the country between government forces and the Houthi rebels caused the league to be suspended back in 2014. There have been a sprinkling of exhibition games and cup competitions, but plans announced in January to restart the league came to nothing.
Some players managed to go overseas but others remained home, and some have, in the absence of competitive and professional football, had to take other jobs to make ends meet. Then, last month, the national team coach Sami Al-Naash died after contracting COVID-19 during a training camp that took place in the south of the country.
Ahmed Ali Qassem has stepped in to take the reins and is under no illusions as to the size of his task.
“We promise the Yemeni public that we will do everything possible to make them happy, and we are realistic with ourselves, and we know the strength and ambition of the teams we will play against,” he said.
Currently fourth with five points from five games, one above Palestine and two behind Singapore, the team may be out of the running for the next round of World Cup qualification but can still take strides toward the 2023 Asian Cup. Yemen have plenty to play for then and, as Renard and his players will be well aware, will not make it easy.