RIYADH: Saudi Arabia continued World Cup preparations on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw against Albania in Abu Dhabi. Here are five things learned from their second of five outing before the big kick-off in Qatar.
1. Al-Shehri staking his claim to be main man
It is welcome that Saudi Arabia scored again, and it came thanks to a penalty from Saleh Al-Shehri just before half-time with the Albanians finding the target just after the break.
That is now two goals in two from the Al-Hilal forward since he returned from injury. He is the only man to score in the last six games and that is something of a worry for the coach Herve Renard, but this was always going to be an issue.
For the last few months, it looked as if the main man up front was going to be Firas Al-Buraikan. The 23-year-old has been in fine form for his club and finished in the top 10 goal scorers in the league last season, the highest-placed local striker. It may well be however that he is more effective coming off the bench with Al-Shehri looking lively and like he has a point to prove.
Scoring goals is going to be difficult in Qatar and even creating chances is not going to be easy. The choice of who leads the line is going to be crucial. At the moment, Al-Shehri is showing his class and ability to keep his cool in front of goal and is looking more likely to be the forward who lines up against Argentina in Saudi Arabia’s first match.
2. Time to end experimenting
The opening game of the World Cup is now less than four weeks away. Given the injuries and everything else and the number of games that are still to come, it is understandable that Renard did the same thing against Albania as against North Macedonia and played one 11 for the first hour and then had mass changes for the last half-hour.
This is not only to give all players a taste of the action and a chance to show the boss what they can do, but also to raise fitness levels of the whole squad, especially those who have been injured or have otherwise missed playing minutes for their clubs.
From now on though, it is time to stop the experiments and start focusing on getting his team right for the opening game. From now, Renard should start thinking about Argentina and what team he is likely to field for that game and start getting the organisation, cohesion, and set pieces as smooth as they can be. Now it is just about fine-tuning and starting to ensure that his strongest 11 starts peaking at the right time.
3. The main man is back
Argentina may not yet be quaking in their boots — they probably do not even know yet given the secretive situation of the match — but Salem Al-Dawsari appeared on the pitch for the first time since last month, coming on after 60 minutes.
The team’s creative force had his appendix removed in September and while it was expected that he would be back in time for the World Cup, there was always the question of how much time it would take for him to get back to full fitness.
The good news is that he should be fine. There are still more than three weeks remaining to get as much sharpness back as possible. There are not going to be any competitive games but that was always going to be the case.
And while the Al-Hilal star did not have the busiest half hour, the important news for all fans of Saudi Arabia is that the wide man is back and can only get better in the next few weeks.
4. Different tests coming up
You must hand it to the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, few teams in the past can have had such a varied World Cup preparation campaign in terms of opposition played.
It started with two tests against South American opposition in Colombia and Venezuela. Then followed two World Cup rivals in Ecuador and the US, and in the past few days there have been two Eastern European teams in North Macedonia and Albania. Next comes Honduras and then there is Iceland, Panama, and Croatia.
What it all means in the end remains to be seen but there has been an almost unprecedented preparation period for the Green Falcons and if there is to be success in Qatar, all the work done beforehand should not be forgotten.
5. Not just about the World Cup
The World Cup is dominating the attention of everyone at the moment and understandably so. But Qatar 2022 is not the only show around.
On Monday, the draw was made for the Gulf Cup. Just six weeks after taking on the mighty Argentina, Saudi Arabia will be playing their first game in Basra against Yemen. Other group games will come against the hosts Iraq and then Oman.
This is the beginning of preparation for the Asian Cup that will take place a year later, and the start of qualification for 2026.
And then on Wednesday, the draw was made for the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup. This is going to be another difficult group and it all kicks off in March. It starts against Kyrgyzstan and then comes China, and the group finishes with a game against Japan.
This is the successor to the now defunct U-19 tournament that last took place in 2018 when it was won by Saudi Arabia. While the focus is on the World Cup for now, there is plenty more to think about.