RIYADH: “Now is not the time to throw away all your hard work and take your eye off the ball.”
That was the message from Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard to his players ahead of Thursday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against China. After collecting an impressive 19 points from the first eight games of Group B, three more in Sharjah will be enough.
The Green Falcons have been in control of Group B since day one and with just two games remaining, sit one point above Japan and four ahead of Australia, who visit Jeddah next Tuesday. Only the top two go to Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so close.
They are strong favorites to defeat fifth-placed China, but Renard is very much on his guard against even the slightest hint of complacency.
Speaking ahead of the game, the Frenchman said: “We are in an excellent position in the group. The players have done an incredible job, and everything is now in our own hands.
“Yes, the most important thing is to get one of the two direct tickets to the World Cup, but I want us to finish first because we have been topping the group for a long time.
“We prepare for this game like we do for every game. I have full confidence in my players. I am sure the players will deliver and bring home the World Cup ticket.”
China have won just one game so far, against bottom team Vietnam, and are out of the running. The 2023 Asian Cup hosts are now focusing on that tournament. Star player and top scorer Wu Lei has been left at Espanyol to focus on his club career. Li Lei of Grasshoppers Zurich has picked up an injury and captain Wu Xi is suspended. The four Brazilians who had been naturalized – Elkeson, Alan Carvalho, Aloisio, and Fernandinho – are all in Brazil.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia who are trying to dampen expectations, China are trying to talk up their chances.
Midfielder Xu Xin said: “I feel the players have been adjusting our form well. We all know the situation of the team as we did not play that well in previous matches, but we never give up our hopes. The players are supporting each other, on and off the field and work hard under the instructions of the coaching staff.
“Against Saudi Arabia, we are eager to prove after reaching this stage of the qualifiers and win the match.”
For China’s coach, Li Xiaopeng, who took the job in December after Li Tie left due to poor results, the game is also about improving results and the mood around Chinese football.
He said: “We know that Saudi Arabia want to win to get to the World Cup, but we want to win too. We may not have a chance to advance to the World Cup, but we want to put on a strong performance and the players are also playing for pride.”
That is why Renard, who took the job in 2019 and has instigated a real improvement in the team, is taking nothing for granted and remembers the tight 3-2 win against China in Jeddah last October.
He said: “In international football, things are always difficult but when you are representing your nation, there is no place for relaxing. We cannot take our foot off the gas at this important stage.”
Saudi Arabia do not have the same injury and selection issues as China with players returning to fitness and appearing for clubs.
“Hassan Tambakti and Abdullah Madu played this weekend and so did Salman Al-Faraj. This is all good news for me. I’m in continuous communication with their clubs’ coaches and I know where they are in terms of fitness,” Renard added.
Madu is a possible replacement for the injured center-back Ali Al-Bulaihi and recently played his first full 90 minutes for Al-Nassr since last September.
“We have five central defenders in the squad, which will be enough to see us through both games. Madu played very well with us in the national team whenever he was selected, so whatever has happened at Al-Nassr, does not concern me. I’m a coach for the national team,” he said.
And, so far, he has been a very successful one with former player Hatem Khemi publicly calling for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to give Renard a new contract after saying that 60 to 70 percent of the success of the team is down to the coach.
Whatever the numbers may be, there is one that really counts. Saudi Arabia are on the brink of appearing at a sixth World Cup and a second one in succession. The qualification campaign has gone almost perfectly and now is not the time to make a mistake.
“Everything is going very well so far with this group of players. It’s been almost four years in Saudi Arabia for me. I would like to congratulate everyone for the effort and work they have done to this point.
“But it is very important that nobody should forget that we have not qualified yet. There is a difficult match ahead and we are ready to take on the challenge,” Renard added.