On the face of it, Saudi Arabia’s 2022 World Cup qualifier in Vietnam should be an away banker. The team at the top of Group B, with 13 points from five games, will be expected to win against the team at the bottom that has lost all five matches so far.
Vietnam are hoping that this is the attitude that the Green Falcons will have and any complacency could be costly. The watchword in the camp is focus.
Vietnam are something of a cornered beast at the moment. The Golden Stars may not be going to the World Cup next year, but they can still have a large say in which teams from the group will or will not be in Qatar.
It will be annoying for Saudi Arabia if, on the way back home from a solid 0-0 result in Sydney, they drop points in Hanoi. Already Herve Renard’s men are looking good for a sixth World Cup appearance, and three more points on the road will give them 16 from six.
Given that 19 points was enough to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it is fairly safe to assume that Saudi Arabia will get the job done in the four games remaining.
This is also the last game of 2021, with a couple of months’ break before the qualification action resumes in January. It would be ideal to still be clear at the top of the group for the new year.
A win, and staying on top of the group, will be vital for the West Asians to keep the pressure off when they face Australia and Japan next year.
The team arrived in Hanoi on Friday on a specially chartered flight from Sydney. Confidence is high after a good performance in the driving rain against Australia. Had chances been taken late in the game, the draw could have become a win, but nevertheless the result will have increased confidence in a team already going well.
Defensively, Saudi Arabia looked solid and did not miss Mohammed Al-Owais too much as stand-in goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie was impressive. The team was well-drilled and well-organized, and there was a lot to like about the 90 minutes. More of the same is needed on Tuesday. If visitors match their intensity with the hard work they showed in Sydney, they will get chances to win the game.
“We played well against Australia and while we could not get the three points that we wanted, it was a positive result for us,” Renard told reporters. “We know that Vietnam are a good team and we will stay focused on getting the right result.”
Vietnam will naturally present a different kind of opponent. The two teams met in the opening game of the round. The Golden Stars’ talismanic attacking midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai opened the scoring in Riyadh with a fine shot from outside the area.
The scoreline stayed the same until 10 minutes into the second half when Do Duy Manh was sent off and Salem Al-Dossari scored the penalty. The home team ran out 3-1 winners to get the final stage off to a flying start.
The initial delight in Vietnam at making the final round of qualification for the first time has worn off after five losses.
Coach Park Hang-seo has just signed a new contract, but even third place — the top two from each group go automatically to the World Cup, while finishing third means the play-offs — is no longer a possibility.
Now Vietnam are playing for pride and that can spell danger.
There is growing pressure and criticism of the coach. Park is pragmatic at the best of times and has told his players to get a result at all costs.
The Southeast Asians will likely look a little different this time compared with September. In Riyadh, they played a 4-3-3, Park’s favored format for some time. Against Japan, however, he changed to a 5-3-2. The three central defenders are flanked by two wing-backs, Nguyen Phong Hong Duy and Vu Van Thanh.
Against Japan, Hong Duy had a torrid time and most of the attacks against Vietnam so far in the group have come down the flanks. How Al-Dossari and Fahad Al-Muwallad perform could be key. If they can get to grips with the wing-backs then there is a lot of space behind that will allow Saudi Arabia to cause huge problems.
The more creative players, such as Quang Hai and Nguyen Cong Phuong, who was unavailable for the game in Riyadh, have looked a little jaded lately, but still have the ability to make things happen.
But, then, so do Saudi Arabia. This has been a great year for the national team, and it will be frustrating if the final qualifier of 2021 results in anything other than a win. The 2022 World Cup is so close and victory in Hanoi will bring Qatar firmly into view.