RIYADH: Ahead of the opening game in Group B in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo has warned Saudi Arabia that it is in for a tough match.
Saudi Arabia, playing in Riyadh with five World Cup appearances under its belt, is expected to take all three points against a team that has never reached this stage before.
Since Park took over in 2017, however, the Golden Stars have become No. 1 in Southeast Asia, rising from 130 in FIFA’s world rankings to 92, just 31 spots below the hosts.
Park, the South Korean football manager who was a member of that country’s 2002 World Cup coaching staff, said: “We are confident that when we play against any team, we will not lose easily.
“We have become more confident together, with players that have been part of a team and grown up with us for three to four years. We have improved in terms of organization and teamwork. We are now a team.”
The 63-year-old, who has ordered players in training sessions to swap shirt numbers in an effort to confuse any local observers reporting back to Saudi coach Herve Renard, pointed out that Vietnam would not sit back and defend passively against Saudi Arabia.
The visitors will likely deploy a five-man defense but, as well as working hard on defensive organization, there is also ambition to hit the hosts on the counter as often as possible.
“We know that we are playing a good team with lots of strengths, but we also have our strengths too and I am confident that we will get the chance to show what those are. We also know that we have the support of our fans at home, and we haven’t come here to lose,” Park added.
After reaching the final of Asia’s U-23 Championships in 2018, the last eight of the 2019 Asian Cup, and the final stage of qualification for the World Cup, European clubs have woken up to the talents of stars such as Nguyen Quang Hai, and Nguyen Cong Phuong — absent for family reasons — who are now seen as among the best in Asia.
Park, a hugely popular figure in the football-loving country of 100 million people, has added a harder edge to a team that was already talented.
He said: “The players are reaching their full potential. Since I came here four years ago, the players are getting better physically and mentally. The clubs have tried hard to support us as have the fans and the government.
“We are looking forward to the challenge of being at this stage for the first time and are ready to show what we can do, starting against Saudi Arabia.”
Attacking ace Quang Hai, one of the top free-kick specialists in Asia, has also stressed the importance of set pieces.
The 24-year-old said: “It’s not just me, but a lot of players in different areas of the pitch have prepared for set pieces against Saudi Arabia.
“If the team enjoys those situations, the players must save and make good use of them. We will give everything we have, and we are looking forward to the game.”
The Vietnamese camp is happy with the facilities and support provided by the Saudi Arabian hosts, especially with the private plane sent to Hanoi last Friday to pick up the team but has been taken aback by the weather conditions in Riyadh.
Goalkeeper, Dang Van Lam, said: “Not only me but the whole team were surprised by the hot and dry climate in Saudi Arabia and after training sessions so far, we have clearly felt the difference.
“In addition, there is a time-zone difference between countries, this is a common difficulty so as professional players, we know how to get used to and adapt as quickly as possible.
“Saudi Arabia is a high-class team that has attended many World Cups, so there is no doubt about their level, but we are at a good level too. We are ready,” added the shotstopper who plays his club football in Japan with Cerezo Osaka.
Vietnam returns to Hanoi to host Australia next Tuesday with Saudi Arabia making the short trip to Oman. Japan and China are the other two teams in the group. Only the top two teams will qualify automatically for Qatar with third place having to negotiate a play-off route.