RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s name was last out of the hat in the draw for the Asian Cup on Thursday, which meant that even before it all finished, those watching in Doha and at home knew that the destination was Group F.
It is debatable whether Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman equal the “Group of Death” but it is certain that the Green Falcons will need to be at their best next January as there will be no easy games.
The ultimate target is, of course, to win a first continental title since 1996, a wait that has been too long.
The best route is through winning the group — in 2019 Saudi Arabia finished second which meant an early meeting with Japan and early elimination. A good start is crucial, though the opener may be the toughest of the lot against Oman. At least there will be few surprises against a familiar opponent.
On the face of it, with Saudi Arabia finishing first in their final 2022 World Cup qualification group and Oman in fourth, there should not be too many nerves in Riyadh, especially as the gap in points between the two teams was nine.
Yet there is more to it than that. The Reds were competitive in all of their games, finishing just one point below Australia. Compact, well-organized and quick in the attack, Oman won in Japan, defeated China and Vietnam and also drew with the Socceroos.
Their twin games with Saudi Arabia were close-run affairs and were both 1-0 wins. However, Oman felt they should have gone home with a point after missing late chances in Jeddah last year, and the same was the case in the first game in September 2021. The words “hard fought” were used on several occasions to describe the two victories.
On the plus side, no one in Saudi Arabia will be taking their fellow Arab nation lightly, especially as Branko Ivankovic is still in charge. The Croatian will be well aware of Saudi Arabia’s qualities.
Frenchman Herve Renard, who led the Green Falcons to the World Cup, has returned home to take the women’s team to the World Cup in July. His replacement has yet to be announced.
Opening games in major tournaments are frequently cagey and low-scoring affairs, but whatever happens in the all-West Asian affair, the following clash against Kyrgyzstan will be seen as a must-win by whoever is in charge.
The Central Asians, ranked 96 in the world, made their continental debut last time around in the UAE and performed well in losing narrowly to China and South Korea before defeating the Philippines to make it to the knockout stage. They then took the UAE to extra-time before losing 3-2.
In qualification for the World Cup, they missed out on the final round, finishing third behind Japan and Tajikistan. Trying to establish themselves as a mid-ranking Asian power, Saudi Arabia should have enough for three points, provided they stay focused.
It all ends against Thailand. Saudi Arabia have a good record against Southeast Asian teams, especially in their own backyard. The War Elephants, ranked 114 in the world, have plenty of talent and were last seen winning the AFF Championships, their regional football festival, defeating Vietnam in the final.
However, Thailand have tended to struggle against the top teams in Asia and few of their most fervent fans will be expecting a win in the final game against the three-time champions. They will, though, be hoping to get through to the knockout stages and given that three of the four teams in the group can make it, there is every chance.
One advantage that Saudi Arabia’s opponents have — though this could change over the coming months — is that they know who their boss will be. The Group F favorites are still searching for a replacement for Renard and there has been talk that he will be appointed in July, once the European season has finished and contracts end.
The first task of the new boss will be to prepare for the Asian Cup and it will come at the perfect time: six months after taking the reins and just as qualification starts for the 2026 World Cup.
The continental tournament is an opportunity for the new boss to get to know his team in a competitive environment and to get to grips with Asian football. More importantly, it is a chance to bring home a record-equaling fourth title after a gap of more than 25 years.