LONDON: Saudi Arabia defeated Yemen 3-0 on Saturday to move five points clear of Uzbekistan at the top of Group D in the second round of World Cup qualification. The Central Asians can reduce that deficit to two points on Monday if they win against Singapore. With only the winner of each of the eight groups as well as the best four runners-up progressing to the final stage, they will need to.
1. The Renard effect is being felt
Prior to the game, Saudi coach Herve Renard said he did not want a repeat of the 2-2 draw with Yemen back in September 2019, one of his first games after being appointed as coach.
The Frenchman admitted that the performance back then was slow and predictable. He needn’t have worried — Saturday’s display could not have been more different.
The Green Falcons were sharp and full of movement and aggression from the first whistle, pressing high, giving the opposition little time on the ball, with lots of movement when on the attack. It meant that the game was won by half-time. Yemen — who, it should be remembered, have not played much football in the past few years due to conflict in their country — have plenty of issues but when you compare the two games, they could not be more different and that bodes well for the three-time Asian champions.
2. There is magic in Fahad Al-Muwallad’s feet
The European Championships start next week but whatever happens around the continent, you will struggle to find a better goal than Fahad Al-Muwallad’s second in the game.
The always impressive Salem Al-Dawsari had already put the hosts ahead after just four minutes and he turned provider 13 minutes later. His defence-splitting pass was a good one but forced Al-Muwallad out to the byline but in one motion the Al-Ittihad star spun on the spot and, from 10 meters left of the goal, somehow chipped the ball into the net. Yemeni goalkeeper Mohammed Ali Ayash said afterwards that he had not expected Al-Muwallad to do what he did and he was not the only one.
3. The pressure is now on Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan now have to wait two days to play and the pressure is on the White Wolves against Singapore. A failure to win could end the race for top spot even before the two powers meet on June 15.
While there is talent in Uzbekistan, the national team has never qualified for the World Cup despite coming very close on more than one occasion. Many have put those failures down to a fragile mentality as they have crumbled in the past under pressure.
Saudi Arabia’s win means the Green Falcons can put their feet up and see what happens.
4. Saudi right side looking good
It is natural that Al-Muwallad got most of the headlines playing on the right side of the attack but the Al-Ittihad man received plenty of support from his right-back, Sultan Al-Ghanam. The 27-year-old was up and down the line with commendable energy on a very warm evening in Riyadh, to ensure that the Yemen defence had no rest.
The Al-Nassr full-back broke into the team in 2017 but has yet to become a permanent fixture — the global pandemic has not helped. However, that may be about to change. There wasn’t much to do defensively but he maintained his concentration to help ensure that there was a clean sheet and a comfortable victory.
5. Yemen have other fish to fry
Yemen arrived in Saudi Arabia talking about playing “realistic football” and having “realistic objectives” in the face of the quality of opposition such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Those objectives still apply. It was never about finishing in the top two but about finishing as high as possible.
This game was almost a free hit as, assuming that Singapore lose to Uzbekistan on Monday and then against Saudi Arabia, Yemen will just have to defeat Palestine in the final matchday to finish third. That would put the team in the third round of qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup and give it a great chance of a second successive appearance.
As important as the continental tournament is, to finish directly below Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, two of the best teams in Asia, would be a major achievement and testament to the spirit of Yemen.