Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia await draw for 3rd AFC qualification round for 2022 World Cup

Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia await draw for 3rd AFC qualification round for 2022 World Cup
Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia wait to see who they will face next. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2021

Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia await draw for 3rd AFC qualification round for 2022 World Cup

Herve Renard’s Saudi Arabia await draw for 3rd AFC qualification round for 2022 World Cup
  • With the top two finishers in each group of six advancing to Qatar 2022, and third-place teams entering play-offs, here are the teams Saudi Arabia will be hoping to play or avoid

RIYADH: Thursday is a big day for Saudi Arabia and for Asian football. In the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, the 12 teams that came through the second round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup will be divided into two groups of six.

The top two of each will go to Qatar. The first of the 10 qualifying matches are set to start in September and end in March, but it remains to be seen whether the schedule will go ahead as planned due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its associated international travel restrictions.

Assuming it does, and the groups are played in the traditional home and away format, the big question is what teams Saudi Arabia would want to meet and which are best avoided?

At Euro 2020, much store has been placed on who will meet who. As Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard will know, the French were happy to play Switzerland in the second round, but it did not work out as planned. Even so, there will be some opponents welcomed more than others for all of the 12, with fans in Riyadh no different.

The important information for supporters of the Green Falcons is that they are in the third pot, meaning that the only team that cannot be met is fellow tier three member the UAE. All the other 10 teams are possible opponents.

Here are the potential opponents Renard, his players, and Saudi fans will look out for in the draw.

Pot 1: Iran or Japan

The preferable top seed has to be Iran rather than Japan. A trip to Tehran is always a tough one but at least travel is not an issue, and while Team Melli won four games out of four in the second half of the second round, the opposition was not the strongest and the performances, while better than earlier in the group, were not the best.

Iran has some excellent players such as Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, but questions still remain as to whether coach Dragan Skocic is the right man to get the best out of them.

The formidable Japan, meanwhile, are best avoided. At the moment, the Samurai Blue are clearly the top team in Asia with huge strength in depth and, as shown in recent qualifiers, capable of fielding a squad made up solely of European-based players.

It will be a big task for Saudi Arabia to get anything from a trip to Tokyo, Saitama, or Osaka. Even playing Japan at home would be a tricky task.

Pot 2: Australia or South Korea

And then it is a second-seed choice between Australia and South Korea, and this is a more difficult one with the former Oceania team just shading it as a preferable pick.

Saudi Arabia has struggled in the past to handle the Socceroos’ physicality and aggression, winning only one of eight meetings, and that was back in 1997.

On the face of it, Australia breezed through the second round with eight wins out of eight, but they often looked predictable and were not tested much. The increasing speed that Renard is getting his men to play at could cause Australia problems.

The record against the Koreans is more mixed but it should be remembered that the east Asians always qualify, and it was 1982 when they last failed to make the global stage.

The Taeguk Warriors did not impress in the second round of qualification but there is room for improvement if coach Paulo Bento can get his act together. Should the Portuguese boss get the best out of Son Heung-min – who has struggled to replicate his club form for his country – and other European-based stars such as Hwang Hee-chan, Lee Jae-sung, and Hwang Ui-jo, then Korea will be formidable and best avoided.

Pot 4: Iraq or China

Heading down to pot number four, the one just below Saudi Arabia’s, surely Iraq would be a preferable option to China.

The Lions of Mesopotamia have been in good form in recent months and have become hard to beat under coach Srecko Katanec, but they are a familiar foe and perhaps lacking a little penetration in attack.

Not being able to play qualifying matches at home obviously makes it more difficult for the 2007 Asian champions and easier for visitors.

A trip to an improving China would be more difficult. Team Dragon may have underachieved in the past, but things are slowly changing. The powers that be are so desperate to reach a second World Cup that the domestic program will be suspended well in advance of any games.

At home, China would probably arrange a game in a relatively hard to reach city at altitude, such as Kunming, with a big and passionate crowd camped outside visitor hotels all night. Throw in a number of naturalized Brazilian stars and a coach who seems settled, and China will be a harder nut to crack than usual.

Pot 5: Syria or Oman

It is a little strange that Syria, who dominated China’s group, becoming the second team after Japan to reach the next stage, are ranked below China.

Despite never playing at home, they breezed through Group A thanks to a strong team spirit, a cutting edge in attack, and being very frustrating to play against, especially when falling behind to them.

Oman would surely be a more welcome proposition, a tidy team but one that was very much second best in their group below Qatar.

Pot 6: Lebanon or Vietnam

Of the weakest seeds, Lebanon would perhaps be preferable over Vietnam. A trip to Beirut is never an easy task for any team but the Cedars were slightly fortunate to take second in their group and probably would not have done so had North Korea not withdrawn.

Vietnam is Asia’s most improved team, full of passion, hard work, and incredible home support and pushed the UAE all the way. As they say however, at this stage, there will be no easy games.


Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive

Saudi Arabia go all out for win against Morocco to keep FIFA Arab Cup hopes alive
  • After Palestine draw, young Saudi team must get all 3 points and hope Jordan falter
  • Abdullah Al-Hamdan: We will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage

Abdullah Al-Hamdan’s late equalizer on Saturday against Palestine kept Saudi Arabia’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup alive.

It means that the mission against Morocco on Tuesday in the final Group C game is a simple one: Win and hope Jordan lose.

It will be far from easy as Morocco have been the best team in the tournament so far. The Atlas Lions have won both of their games 4-0. In contrast, Saudi Arabia started the campaign with a 1-0 defeat against Jordan and then drew 1-1 with Palestine. It leaves Morocco top of the group with six points, Jordan second with three, and Saudi Arabia and Palestine with one each.

The spine of the Moroccan team has looked very solid indeed. Badr Benoun has taken the captain’s armband and has been leading from the center of defense in impressive fashion. The midfield of Yahya Jabrane, Abdelilah Hafidi and Wallid El Karti has worked well and worked hard together with Ismail El Haddad and Achraf Bencharki (the Zamalek forward has been a standout). They have looked good in attack, and goals have flowed.

If Morocco won so convincingly against a Jordan team that should have defeated Saudi Arabia by more than one goal, then what chance does this young Saudi team, essentially an under-23 side, have?

There is always hope and, in this case, there is some positive news. One is that goal difference may help. Should the Green Falcons win, then a draw will not be enough for Jordan against Palestine. They will have to win.

Also, the fact that Morocco have been so good means at least that they have already secured a place in the last eight and almost certainly taken first place. It is a talented lineup, but with the quarter-final coming on Saturday, it is likely that players will be rested.

Even so, Moroccan goalkeeper Abdelali Mhamdi has warned the Asian powerhouse that the North Africans are not about to take it easy, especially as the team will also be roared on by a healthy contingent of fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Qatar.

“We want to end the group stage with another victory that will enhance our confidence,” the 30 year old, who plays his club football for Saudi Arabian club Abha, said. “We will not take things easy, but we will play with the same energy and intensity that we did in the first two games.”

Whatever the opposition, there is a lot to do for Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen what the lineup is, given that eight changes were made for the 1-1 draw with Palestine. Abdullah Al-Hamdan did not start, but came off the bench to score the vital goal that means that this game is not a dead rubber. It has turned the Arab Cup campaign around, potentially, and many in Saudi Arabia will be hoping that it ends up doing the same with the striker’s career.

At the very least, it will be a confidence boost for the former Al-Shabab striker. His big move to Al-Hilal in February looked significant for the then 21 year old. He has, however, struggled for playing time at the Asian champions with the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis and Moussa Marega ahead of him in the domestic pecking order.

His instincts were on display on Saturday as he steered the ball home.

“I do not care whether I score or my teammates score as we just want to win. The team comes first,” he said.

Al-Hamdan knows what needs to be done against Morocco.

“We made the task difficult for ourselves, but there is nothing impossible in football,” he said. “We know very well that the Moroccan national team is strong, but we will play our game, and our goal is to take the three points and move forward to the next stage.”

It will also be a test for Laurent Bonadei. The assistant coach of the senior team is in the dugout while Herve Renard watches from the stands. Bonadei has already invoked the spirit of the 2019 Gulf Cup when Saudi Arabia recovered from an opening game loss to reach the final of the tournament.

If the number two can steer what is a young and inexperienced team into a similar position, then it will be a fine achievement for all and another sign that Saudi Arabian football is heading in the right direction. It will all be decided against Morocco on Tuesday.


Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
Updated 06 December 2021

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub

Famous Argentine polo team in Saudi deal to turn AlUla into regional equestrian hub
  • Royal Commission for AlUla, La Dolfina partnership agreement will see sporting legend become advocate for heritage site

RIYADH: The Royal Commission for AlUla and the famous La Dolfina Polo Team have announced a long-term partnership deal aimed at turning the Saudi heritage site into a regional hub for equestrian activities and a destination for horse enthusiasts from around the world.

As part of the agreement, Adolfo Cambiaso, founder of La Dolfina and widely regarded as the world’s greatest ever polo player, will also become a destination advocate for AlUla.

The team also said it would be returning to AlUla to compete in the 2022 Desert Polo event after a successful debut at the inaugural competition in January last year, the country’s first official polo tournament.

AlUla Desert Polo (slated for Feb. 11 to 12 next year) will take place in the unique, purpose-built desert arena in the shadows of the ancient site of Hegra.

Cambiaso said: “When we travelled to AlUla for the first Desert Polo, we were blown away by the breathtaking landscape of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the stunning desert of AlUla.

“We learnt that the relationship of the Arabian Peninsula and horses extends for thousands of years as found in the archaeological inscriptions on the rocks in and around AlUla.

“Through the stunning intricately carved tombs at Hegra and the open-air library of Jabal Ikmah, we can understand how humans began to tame these magnificent creatures, and the role of the horse in the development of civilized human beings,” he added.

The linkup, supported by the Saudi Polo Federation, plans to bring together expertise from both sides through a new model of sport partnership built around the three main cornerstones of cultural and equestrian synergies, a shared commitment to excellence, and the development of the sport of polo in the Kingdom.

The Argentine-based team, described as “a perfect team” due to its 40-goal handicap, made history by winning three consecutive Triple Crowns (the Tortugas Open, Hurlingham Open, and Argentine Open in 2013, 2014, and 2015). La Dolfina is the only team in polo history to hold the record.

“We were very lucky to be amongst the first to experience these sites before it was an open destination throughout the full year, and now we look forward to returning.

“Desert Polo was an incredible event that not only introduced polo to Saudi Arabia but also helped the polo world discover Saudi with new eyes through AlUla. Seeing the commitment and passion to develop in polo, and sports in general, is a mission we share and want to help with,” Cambiaso said.

Phillip Jones, the RCU’s chief destination management and marketing officer, said: “Our role is to preserve and develop AlUla as a global destination for cultural heritage and eco-tourism with a long-term plan that preserves the area’s natural and historic heritage, while establishing AlUla as an attractive location to live, work, and visit.

“Aligning with the No. 1 polo player in the world allows us to fuse our history of horsemanship and Adolfo’s expertise in polo to preserve our heritage and promote equestrian sports in the nation.

“The horse heritage story is real and rich and deep in AlUla, and we look forward to our role in raising the profile of the sport in the country,” he added.

Amr Zedan, chairman of the Saudi Polo Federation, said it was an “honor” to be partnering with La Dolfina.

“We have had great support from Adolfo and all the La Dolfina players and look forward to continuing our collaboration to build the world’s most successful polo team,” he added.


Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling, topsy-turvy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after an epic battle with title rival Max Verstappen to ensure his title challenge remained alive going into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

The victory for the British driver in an incident-heavy race means the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers are now level on points in the world championship standings ahead of the finale in the UAE.

Hamilton got off to a perfect start off the line, while Verstappen appeared to be struggling to get power down in the early stages. But the momentum shifted toward the Dutchman when Haas driver Mick Schumacher hit a barrier, which eventually red-flagged the session after an initial safety car.

Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas were called into the pits under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out and took the lead of the race once the red flags waved, allowing him to pit and change tires still out in front.

On the restart, Hamilton retook the lead amid a close encounter with Verstappen, who the seven-time champion claimed forced him off the track.

Just a few laps later, there was another red flag after Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The battle between the two title hopefuls had heated up even more when Verstappen received a five-second penalty due to a controversial move on Hamilton, who accused the Dutchman of “brake-testing’” him.

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Race officials decided that Verstappen’s move was illegal, which after some negotiation between FIA race director and the teams put Alpine’s Esteban Ocon into the lead for third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through, and tempers in the garages were fraying when they collided late in the race.

Bottas kept the pressure on a slowing Ocon and snatched the third and final podium spot on the final lap in what was his penultimate race for Mercedes.

Hamilton was full of praise for the efforts of his team after the race, while saying he “did not understand” why Verstappen had braked and that the incident was “confusing..”

“I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough, he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean.

“It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us so I’m just really proud of everyone and great with the crowd.

“Red Bull have some raw pace, it was hard to overtake them, we’ve done an amazing job and Valtteri did a great job for the team and this is for all the guys and girls back in the factory.

“It has been an amazing event I felt very welcome here and people have been lovely here. The track is phenomenal, very difficult physically and mentally but you would not want it any other way.”

Verstappen was in a more philosophical mood, calling into question some of the decisions made by officials

“It was quite eventful, a lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” he said.

“I tried to give it my all, I don’t think the tires were lasting, I was lacking a bit of rubber at the end, nevertheless, still second.

“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.

“It will be decided (at Abu Dhabi), hopefully we have a good weekend.”


Saudi crown prince attends F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi crown prince attends F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)

JEDDAH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made an appearance at the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday.

The race, which was the first ever F1 to be held in the Kingdom, was won by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in a dramatic spectacle at the Jeddah Corniche circuit.

Ahead of the start of the race, the crown prince toured the pitlane and was seen waving to chanting fans at the historical event on the Jeddah seafront.

The race has captivated sports fans in the Kingdom, as one of the world’s most iconic motor racing tournaments was held in a Saudi city for the first time.

The crown prince wished the players well, praising the level of competition on display, before announcing the start of the race.

The victory keeps Hamilton in the hunt for the F1 title as the teams travel to the UAE for the final race of the championship.

Prince Mohammed was accompanied by a number of dignitaries including Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad. He was also accompanied by Saudi Minister of Sport Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, President of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal, and President of the International Automobile Federation Jean Todt.

Minister of Interior Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed also attended the race, along with a number of other senior officials and guests.


Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action
Updated 06 December 2021

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action
  • Locals and international visitors applaud Kingdom’s success in inaugural Formula One Grand Prix

JEDDAH: With just hours left until the big race, the Jeddah Formula One weekend has stolen the hearts of locals and visitors as the open-sea circuit promises and delivers a spectacle for fans.

F1 fans from all over the world made their way to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit by the Red Sea for the Kingdom’s inaugural Grand Prix and the penultimate race of the season, taking place on Sunday as the fifth night race on the calendar.

“Well, honestly, coming here I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw today. This is something we’ve been waiting for, for a long time,” said Almogherah Al-Ghalib, a local F1 fan who works in the marine sector. “The organization, the views and the lighting is awesome — and just to see all these people here in this historical event is something that words cannot explain.”

Organizers at the venue welcomed people to scenes that personified the buzz that has been building up since construction on the track commenced in April. With many events, activities and concerts taking place, fans were dazzled both on and off the track.

“This is my first time in Saudi Arabia, so I didn’t really know what to expect but it’s been super positive ever since I arrived,” said Sam Fane, an automotive YouTuber from the UK. “I’ve been very well looked after through amazing hospitality, and I tried some nice Arabian coffee, which I very much enjoyed.”

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Months of planning went into the eagerly anticipated race. However, many foreign media outlets released reports before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix claiming that the track would not be finished on time. But the Kingdom responded through action, delivering on its promise to give the fans a show.

“I think this place is absolutely stunning, I have to say. You have a beautiful sunset like the one that’s going on behind me and the background of the F1 track is pretty amazing. Everywhere I look, it’s beautiful. It’s a great place to have an F1 race and I’m sure a great place to visit even when the F1 is not going on,” Fane said.

“I think we’re all excited for what’s hopefully going to be an epic race,” he added.

With doors to the venue having been open since Friday, the sun has been bright and shining, the Red Sea glistening and the fans flocking to catch the action of the nail-biting championship between seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and up-and-coming driver Max Verstappen, who will be pushing their cars to the limit during tonight’s potential title-decider.

“I'm British, so obviously I have to be a Lewis Hamilton fan. It’s been a very exciting season in F1 this year.” Fane told Arab News. “While I want to it to go down to the wire, I’m a Lewis fan all the way.”

At 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, it is lights out and away we go.

“Honestly, words cannot explain or express how I feel today. It’s a transitional period here in Saudi Arabia, and we’re glad to be here,” said Al-Ghalib.