Saudi Arabia’s 2021 Arab Cup campaign ended at the group stage on Tuesday with a 1-0 loss to Morocco in Qatar. An inexperienced squad made up of Under-23 players exited the tournament after collecting one point from three games in Group C to finish in third place.
In the end, Morocco were too good for the rookie Green Falcons, but they only scored through a first-half penalty from Karim El Berkaoui. Victory means they progress to the quarter-finals with three wins out of three. Jordan, who defeated bottom team Palestine 5-1 in the other fixture, also go into the last eight, where they face Algeria or Egypt.
It was always going to be tough for Saudi Arabia against the Atlas Lions, who had won both previous games 4-0. Assistant coach Laurent Bonadei, in charge of the team with Herve Renard watching from the stands, went with two strikers, Firas Al-Buraikan and Abdullah Al-Hamdan. Neither got into the game in the first half, however, and it was a midfielder who had the best chance as an early shot from Turki Al-Ammar had the goalkeeper scrambling to make a near post save. For the most part however, Morocco were on top.
Yet the teams looked to be heading in at the break 0-0 until goalkeeper Zaid Al-Bawardi brought down Karim El-Berkaoui inside the area. Nobody could disagree with the penalty decision and the Al-Raed forward dusted himself down and fired home a perfect spot-kick into the corner, just past the fingertips of a goalkeeper who almost made up for his mistake.
It was the last action of the half and a frustrating end as the young Green Falcons had worked so hard to keep out the opposition. A goalless scoreline at half-time would have been confidence-boosting and a platform from which to build in the second period.
Morocco continued to push forward after the break but Saudi Arabia had a penalty call of their own just before the hour as Al-Hamdan was bundled over right on the edge of the area. A free-kick was the initial decision and hearts were in mouths in both camps when Andres Cabrera went to check on the pitchside monitor to see if the challenge had been inside the box.
The Uruguayan did change his mind but instead of a penalty, he decided that the Al-Hilal forward had gone to ground too easily and the free-kick was given to the men in red instead.
It summed up the evening for the Saudi team at Al-Thumama Stadium. As the minutes ticked by it became increasingly apparent that they were not going to get the two goals they needed, especially when right-back Ali Majrashi was shown a second yellow card for a clumsy tackle with 11 minutes remaining to reduce Saudi Arabia to 10 men. From that point it was a question as to whether the defeat would be by a single goal or not.
It was testament to the Saudi spirit and work-rate that it remained just 1-0, though Dari Achraf headed against the bar from a corner in injury time. In the end, the result did not matter in terms of progression as Jordan had secured second spot by thrashing Palestine.
It was a flat end to an experimental tournament for Saudi Arabia, during which some players suggested that they have a bright future for the senior national team with others having much work to do if they are going to get a call-up from head coach Renard in January.
That is when the serious action of qualification for the 2022 World Cup resumes. Returning to Qatar next winter is more important than staying for an extra week or so this time.