Saudi Arabia continued their preparation for the 2022 World Cup with a 0-0 draw against Honduras in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Herve Renard’s team continue to be stubborn at the back but lacking in attack.
Here are five things we learned from their latest outing.
1. Cutting edge still absent
The result takes Saudi Arabia’s unbeaten run to five games after two draws against fellow World Cup participants Ecuador and the US in September and then last week’s win over North Macedonia and draw with Albania. While that won’t do the team’s confidence any harm, this was a game that the Green Falcons should have won.
Honduras were not only without some of their regular starters, who are in action for their clubs, but also played the second half with only 10 men as Ivan Lopez was red-carded just before the break. Despite the man advantage (the Central Americans actually had another player and the coach sent off late into added time), the Saudis could not breach the Honduras defense. While there may be five games unbeaten, just two goals scored in seven games — and one of those a penalty — suggests that Saudi Arabia’s best hope in Qatar is their defense.
2. Time for the secrecy to end
This is the third game in a row in which coach Herve Renard has tried to keep his World Cup cards close to his chest in order to deprive Argentina, Mexico and Poland of a chance to see his team, players, tactics and formation. The one downside of having more preparation games than anyone else is that other teams can get a good look at how you are doing, but in this case, opposition scouts and analysts will likely have spent more time looking at the qualification campaign for Qatar 2022.
It is difficult, however, for Saudi Arabian fans to feel the excitement as the World Cup draws closer when there is such a veil of secrecy surrounding the last three games. The first two games were experimental with the line-ups changing after an hour. The Honduras one was a little more conventional, and it should mean that the next game, against Iceland later this week, is open to all and that fans can go and support their heroes and generate some of that World Cup fever.
3. Al-Malki return shows his character
When Abdulelah Al-Malki headed to Japan for a February World Cup qualifier, he must have been in the best of spirits. He had just joined Al-Hilal from Al-Ittihad, was looking forward to the FIFA Club World Cup and was an integral part of the Saudi Arabian team that looked well on course for a place at the World Cup.
Then he was tackled midway through the first half and picked up an anterior cruciate ligament injury. It was devastating, and the initial prognosis was that he would be out of action for nine to 12 months. Now, though, the defensive midfielder is back and playing for the national team.
He may not have played any competitive football since that Japan game but has slotted back into action smoothly and still has the old energy and composure on the ball. Renard is a big fan of the 28-year-old, and his return to fitness could be one of the stories of the World Cup.
4. Injury situation getting better by the game
As well as Al-Malki, the list of absentees is shrinking, and arranging so many games has at least given coach Renard multiple chances to provide a number of the injured players with some much-needed minutes on the pitch, though it has perhaps contributed to the lack of intensity so far.
As well as the captain and the defensive midfield lynchpin Salman Al-Faraj, there are others coming back. Salem Al-Dawsari is also growing fitter after his appendix operation and is starting to look like his old self.
Saleh Al-Shehri had scored in the previous two games and Yasser Al-Shahrani is also back in the team. It is expected that Sultan Al-Ghannam and Nasser Al-Dawsari will join the training camp this Thursday, and if they can also get back into top condition by the time the opening World Cup clash with Argentina comes around, the Green Falcons are going to be close to having their full strength squad available in Qatar.
5. Results no longer important
With a win and four draws in the last five games, results are OK, and with Iceland coming up in the next few days and then Panama after that, it is time to try and put some serious pressure on the opposition and find something of a scoring groove. At this stage, a loss or two don’t really matter, but there is still a little time to try and find that cutting edge going forward and take a few risks.
Saudi Arabia have shown that they can keep things tight at the back, with just one goal conceded in the past five games and just three in the last eight, but if the full-backs can try and get forward a little more and if the midfield can play a little higher up the pitch and try and win the ball back closer to the opposition’s goal, then more chances may be created.
It is unfortunate that it is not easy to arrange tests at the moment against stronger opposition, as most teams are full of players active in their domestic leagues, but the final warm-up game against Croatia in Riyadh should see a team that wants to attack. That leaves, against Iceland and Panama, a chance in the next two games to pile on the pressure and for players to get goals.