LONDON: What an opening day of World Cup qualifiers that was, and especially in Group B. Of the dozens of things we learned on Thursday in the final round of qualification for Qatar, here are just five.
Saudi Arabia show confidence and patience to beat Vietnam 3-1 after early wake-up call
Vietnam’s talisman Nguyen Quang Hai said before the game that he was focusing on making the most of set pieces, but his goal after just three minutes came from open play and was a beauty. The one good thing for Saudi Arabia is that it came early. Vietnam were causing problems in the first half, but the hosts stayed reasonably calm and patient in the belief that chances would come sooner or later.
It was all possible thanks to the new-found confidence and rhythm that the team has picked up under Herve Renard in recent months. The penalty and sending off early in the second half looked harsh on a committed Vietnam, but that is not the Green Falcons’ fault.
Once the goal came and the man went, the result was never in doubt. The attack was patient and probing and there was always a feeling that another goal was going to come. The first game is all about getting the points, and Saudi Arabia have started well.
Oman’s win in Japan a result for the ages but a double-edged sword
Oman had been largely forgotten about in the buildup, perhaps understandably as they were away to the highly fancied Japan in the opening game, but ended winning 1-0. Nobody gave them a chance, perhaps including the hosts, who could have fielded a stronger team. Yet Oman were immense on a rainy night in Osaka, limiting the hosts to half-chances and speculative shots. Had VAR not intervened then the visitors would have had a second-half penalty. They did not need it as Issam Al-Sabhi scored smartly with two minutes remaining.
It was a fantastic result against Asia’s best team and it will provide inspiration for the rest of Group B. Japan looked short of ideas and lacked movement and energy. Yet, it adds a little wariness for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If Oman can win in Japan then they can win anywhere. All six teams in the group need to be respected.
Australia’s movement looks ominous
There were genuine concerns in Australia going into their game with China in Qatar, but they won 3-0. The team had little time to prepare, the home advantage had been given up due to travel restrictions and the team looked short of stars. China, meanwhile, were looking good and had top-notch preparation.
Yet the Socceroos came out as comfortable winners in Doha. The movement of the four attacking players — Awer Mabil, Tom Rogic, Martin Boyle and Adam Taggart — was excellent and just too much for the Chinese defense. There was a single-mindedness going forward and when Mabil and Boyle scored in the space of two minutes in the first half, it was all over as a contest. Australia have a habit of winning even when they are not playing well, but here they looked pretty good, and the early leaders will go to Hanoi full of confidence after reminding the rest of the group that they have qualified for the last four World Cups.
Yasser Al-Shahrani deserves more recognition
There were some eyebrows raised when the Al-Hilal fullback was selected as one of three over-age players for Saudi Arabia’s Olympic team, but given the form he has been in this year, why not? He has been excellent for his club this season, getting up and down the line and putting in some fabulous crosses to set up chances and goals for famous international strikers such as Bafetimbi Gomis and Moussa Marega. Players in form for their clubs are gifts to national team coaches. On Thursday, Al-Shahrani popped up in the area to power home a header that those two forwards would have been proud of. He was generally excellent even if it took him a little time to get to grips with the aggressive Vietnamese start.
Al-Shahrani rarely has a bad game and rarely has an average game. Consistently good and often excellent, the 29 year old should be a bigger star than he is.
Vietnam will take points off Saudi Arabia’s rivals
The Golden Stars may have lost 3-1 in Saudi Arabia, and there may be those who expect the team from Southeast Asia to go the same way as Thailand did five years ago, when they performed well in Riyadh only to lose and then struggle for the rest of the group. That is unlikely to happen as Vietnam are made of sterner stuff.
They more than matched Saudi Arabia until the sending off and penalty early in the second half. Even after being reduced to 10 men, the Reds were still competitive and aggressive. While there was nothing to show for their efforts, Vietnam will cause all teams problems in the group, and while they are unlikely to finish in the top two, they will collect points, and that will be good for Saudi Arabia.