LONDON: The first day of the Olympic football competition brought a mixture of encouragement and disappointment for the two Arab participants at Tokyo 2020. Egypt managed a commendable 0-0 draw with tournament favorites Spain, while Saudi Arabia will feel a little aggrieved at losing 2-1 to Ivory Coast in another hard-fought game.
1. Saudis suffer harsh defeat
The young Green Falcons may have lost a seventh game out of seven in the Olympics, but that does not tell the whole story. Saudi Arabia had the lion’s share — 56 percent — of possession against the talented Ivory Coast, and worked incredibly hard with and without the ball.
The pressing in the first half was excellent and seemed to surprise the opposition. In such humid conditions, it was no surprise that the same energy levels could not be sustained for the full 90 and while possession was good, the Africans always looked a little sharper going forward.
What was encouraging was the attitude and response to going behind to an own goal. Just five minutes after that setback, Saudi Arabia were level. The all-round attitude and performance will please coach Saad Al-Shehri, with the fact that the game ended in defeat the only reason there is not widespread satisfaction.
2. Al-Dossary shines for Saudi
There were a number of good Saudi performances, but with Abdullah Al-Hamdan looking far from sharp in the striking role, it was up to main man Salem Al-Dossary to lead the way. The Al-Hilal star scored the senior team’s winning goal against Egypt at Russia 2018 to earn a first win at the World Cup for 24 years, and his goal at Yokohama International Stadium was good enough to win any game.
Picking the ball up just outside the area, Al-Dossary had time to look and then curled an unstoppable shot past the outstretched arms of the Ivory Coast goalkeeper Ira Eliezer Tape. He almost scored another fine goal late in the game, but his shot from just inside the box struck the crossbar in heartbreaking fashion. It was that close to being 2-2.
3. Ivory Coast’s attacking quality edged the encounter
Saudi Arabia is the only team among the 16 currently in Japan with a squad entirely based at home. This is no time to get into that debate, but a difference in quality was noticeable in the second half. Amad Diallo went on a run and then passed to Franck Kessie, who turned smartly on the edge of the area and finished beautifully. In effect, it was a goal made by a Manchester United player and finished by an AC Milan man. This goal was the difference between getting a point or none for the Saudis, and it was one of international quality.
It is always going to be difficult for players who play all their competitive games in Saudi Arabia to suddenly come up against rivals who compete in the upper reaches of the English Premier League and Serie A. Warm-ups against African and South American opposition only help so much and when it came to it, the winner came from players with two of the biggest clubs in the world.
4. Egypt’s heroics deserve international recognition
Before the tournament much was written about the Spanish squad and how it included six members who had taken part in the country’s impressive Euro 2020 campaign, including Barcelona prodigy Pedri.
In the previews, Egypt were hardly mentioned and dismissed as mere fodder for the last European team to win gold back in 1992. Yet the Pharaohs, led by Ahmed Hegazi and defensive partner Mahmoud Hamdi, worked hard to deny Spain a goal in a display of fine and committed defending. It was sometimes far from pretty, but it was effective.
Again, in the match commentaries and reports, there was little mention of Egypt, and the effort and discipline that had been put into the match. It was all about Spain and its failure to score. But Egypt — with players who were in action for Al-Ahly in the CAF Champions League final in Morocco last Saturday — deserve huge credit for their efforts.
5. Both Arab teams still in hunt for last eight
It was unfortunate that Saudi Arabia, who had chances, especially in the final stages, were not able to get the goal their efforts deserved, but there is still hope. The game against Germany on Sunday is huge, but if Al-Shehri can get another solid performance out of his players then there is no reason they cannot get something off the Germans. It will be tough, but if Egypt can foil Spain, Saudi Arabia can do the same to Germany.
For Egypt, the situation is obviously more encouraging. Taking a point off the best team in the group opened things up unexpectedly. Argentina are next, and the South Americans looked open at the back against Australia and unimpressive going forward. Then comes the final game against the Olyroos, who looked organized and dangerous in attack. It really is up for grabs.
Four points can often be enough, and it is well within reach.