A little history will be made on Friday as Saudi Arabia take on Ecuador in Spain. According to reports, Herve Renard will take charge of the national team for the 31st time, equalling the number reached by Jose Peseiro from 2009 to 2011. It is an impressive record and would have been even better had COVID-19 not hit in 2020.
The Frenchman won’t care too much about that as his time will not be judged only on what he has done since his appointment in July 2019 but what happens in November and, hopefully, December in Qatar.
Unlike Peseiro, Renard has taken the Green Falcons to the World Cup and finished qualification on top of a group that also included Japan and Australia. It was an impressive campaign. Renard crafted a team that was more cohesive, flexible and tactically astute than before and got his just rewards with a contract extended to 2027 and a spot at Qatar 2022 in a group with Argentina, Poland and Mexico.
Preparations started almost immediately with June friendlies against Colombia and Venezuela in Spain, two South American opponents that had not qualified for the World Cup. Both games were lost 1-0 and showed there was work to do.
There was a little too much space behind the defense and perhaps a little too much respect given to the opposition, especially Colombia. Still, there were some absences, including star player Salem Al-Dawsari, and Renard himself missed the first due to illness and, as tests go, they were valuable.
Just how valuable will be seen on Friday against a South American team that will be at Qatar — and will face the hosts in their opening match and see Saudi Arabia as good preparation for that — and then a clash with the US four days later.
After three years in charge, Renard has a good idea of his best team and there were few surprises in his squad. An eyebrow or two had been raised at the exclusion of Al-Hilal right-back Mohammed Al-Breik, though there are decent options in this position. The main talking point concerned goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. The 35-year-old retired from international football in 2019 but then indicated earlier this year that he would be available once more.
It is not going to happen.
“His level is excellent at the moment but Al-Mayouf decided to retire more than three years ago,” Renard said. “We currently have a good goalkeeper, Muhammad Al-Owais, who has played well with the national team.”
Al-Mayouf himself has said that he respects the decision.
As always, a coach will live and die by such decisions but this is an unusual situation and will be discussed by the international media at the World Cup. Al-Mayouf is the number one at Al-Hilal while Al-Owais is his number two and therefore not playing regularly. Many feel that the former is the best domestic shotstopper in a league that is dominated by foreign goalkeepers and not only that, is better on the ball and playing out from the back. He also recently broke the league record for total number of clean sheets.
Yet Al-Owais did perform well in qualification and it is understandable that a coach wants to stay loyal to the man that has consistently delivered. It may be wise, however, to consider taking Al-Mayouf to Qatar to at least give some strength in depth if anything does happen to Al-Owais. Any goalkeeping mistakes in Spain in the next few days will surely lead to a greater debate at home in the next few weeks.
Renard has also called two players who have been serving lengthy bans: Mohamed Kanoo and Fahad Al-Muwallad. Both served well during qualification and will be looking to show the fans, as much as the boss, what they can do. Al-Muwallad has recently left Al-Ittihad to join Al-Shabab and the winger’s attacking qualities are likely to be needed in Qatar. Their experience appeals especially as captain Salman Al-Faraj has been picking up knocks on a regular and worrying basis of late. All hope that the Al-Hilal man stays fit for the big event.
In attack, Renard has recalled Haroune Camara, understandably so, given the lack of options. The mercurial Al-Ittihad forward has not played much this season but has scored one good goal and offers something a little different. Abdullah Al-Hamdan is out, perhaps paying the price for the striking riches that his club Al-Hilal have, which means he is very much a squad player, while club-mate Saleh Al-Shehri is still injured with an achilles tendon and so is touch-and-go for November. Saudi Arabia would welcome any sign of goalscoring prowess from anyone but, at the moment, Firas Al-Buraikan is the main man, even if some feel he is more effective coming off the bench.
Ecuador finished fourth in CONMEBOL qualification and have a squad with plenty of experience in their home continent, Europe and MLS. They arrive in Spain full of confidence and on the back of an unbeaten run of four games, which includes draws against Argentina and Mexico and a win over Nigeria.
So a tough test awaits, which is how it should be just two months out of the World Cup. For Saudi Arabia and their record-breaking coach, it is as much about the performance and fine-tuning the team ahead of Qatar as it is about the result and not falling to a confidence-sapping third defeat in a row against Latin American opposition.