Eyes on Mancini’s Saudi team as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off against Pakistan

Analysis Eyes on Mancini’s Saudi team as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off against Pakistan
Above, football action during a friendly match between Saudi Arabia and Nigeria last month, which ended in a draw. (X: @SaudiNT_EN)
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Updated 15 November 2023
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Eyes on Mancini’s Saudi team as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off against Pakistan

Eyes on Mancini’s Saudi team as 2026 World Cup qualifiers kick off against Pakistan
  • Italian coach has had a disappointing start as Green Falcons boss, with a draw and three losses in four friendlies

On Thursday, it will be six days short of one year since Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina 2-1 in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup.

It also marks the start of qualification campaign for the 2026 tournament at home against Pakistan, with a tricky trip to Jordan to follow on Nov. 21.

Tomorrow’s opposition may not be as glamorous as the South Americans, who went all the way to lift the trophy, but nothing short of three points will be acceptable.

The standard of opponent for this first-time meeting is not the only thing that has changed from year ago, with Herve Renard having left in March to take over the France women’s team. The Frenchman led Saudi Arabia through qualification for Qatar 2022 in impressive fashion, though it started with a bit of a wobble and a 2-2 draw against Yemen in September 2019.

Now, four years and two months later, it is the turn of another European coach.

Roberto Mancini has been in place since August and needs a win, as results in the friendlies since then have not been encouraging. The former Manchester City boss, who left his job in charge of European champions Italy to head to Riyadh, has lost three and drawn one of his four games so far, though six of the seven before he arrived had also been defeats.

Under the Italian, the standard of friendly opposition has been relatively high: The defeats came against Costa Rica, South Korea and Mali, with the stalemate against Nigeria. However, it goes without saying that nothing less than a win will do on Thursday in Al-Ahsa.

Anything else would be as big a surprise as that victory over Argentina. This is, on paper at least, the easiest game the Green Falcons will have on the road to North America — a home tie against a team ranked 193, a full 136 spots below. A good start is essential ahead of a tricky trip to Jordan next Tuesday. It should at least end the winless streak and the talk around that.

Thursday is the start of the second round of qualification and the first time that Asia’s big boys step into the fray. The 36 teams have been divided into nine groups of four, with the top two from each going through to the final round. There, the successful 18 teams will battle it out for Asia’s eight automatic places.

The doubling of the continent’s allocation should make it easier for Saudi Arabia to add to the six previous appearances, though this week South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann said that expanding the number of spots will motivate all teams to fight harder than usual and go right to the end.

That remains to be seen, but to be one of the 48 to clinch a seventh World Cup appearance is obviously the target for Saudi Arabia. Mancini will be without his star player Salem Al-Dawsari, the match-winner against Argentina. The winger, named as the Asian Player of the Year last month, is doubtful due to an ankle injury sustained in Al-Hilal’s 2-0 win over Al-Taawoun last Friday. It is a blow, with the 32 year-old becoming increasingly influential as the Blues have gone to the top of the table. His team-mate and namesake Nasser Al-Dawsari is also out.

However, the real talking point is the relatively young and inexperienced squad named by Mancini, with most having fewer than 10 appearances. Even Talal Hajji, a 16-year-old forward from Al-Ittihad, has been selected. The likes of Firas Al-Buraikan — the leading Saudi Arabian goalscorer in the league recently — Abdullah Al-Hamdan and Sultan Al-Ghannam are absent.

It is a bold squad and bold statement that has resulted in some criticism from the local media for Mancini, who is looking to build for the future, including a likely home World Cup in 2034.

First, though, are Pakistan, a team that won their first World Cup qualifier just last month, with a 1–0 victory over Cambodia, and will be keen to avoid heavy defeat against an Asian powerhouse. The lineup includes a number of European-based players, such as former Manchester United youth player Otis Khan. Coach Stephen Constantine knows his way around Asia, but also knows that he will not be judged on what happens in Saudi Arabia.

Mancini will not be judged on what happens against Pakistan — unless the unthinkable happens — as tougher tests lie ahead. For the Italian and Saudi Arabia, the road to North America starts here, and it could be quite a ride.


Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
Updated 12 April 2024
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Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
  • “It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Al-Hilal beat Al-Ittihad 4-1 in the final of the Saudi Super Cup on Thursday to stay on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
The trophy, lifted in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, is the first of the season for the Riyadh giant but is unlikely to be the last as the team is also 12 points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the top of the Saudi Pro League with just seven games remaining.
Al-Hilal, also in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Saudi King’s Cup, has also expanded its world record winning streak for top-tier teams to 34 consecutive games in all competitions.
Three days after defeating Al-Nassr in the semifinal, during which Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulaihi, two goals from Brazilian winger Malcom did the damage for Al-Hilal. Salem Al-Dawsari and Nasser Al-Dawsari sealed the win with late goals.
“It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television. “We are also happy to collect our first title of the season but we are chasing more trophies.”
Ittihad striker Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid last summer, was unable to find the target while colleague Abderrazak Hamdallah made up for missing a penalty by getting on the scoresheet.
The Moroccan forward featured in a controversial incident at the end of the match, however, as he seemed to get involved in an altercation with a fan standing close to the field. The supporter was led away by security personnel.
In 2023, the Super Cup was expanded from a single game between the league champion and King’s Cup winner to include the runners-up from both competitions. It was also moved to Abu Dhabi.
Al-Hilal returns to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals as it seeks a record fifth continental title.
The club’s potentially record-breaking season comes after it spent about 350 million euros ($380 million) on player transfers after being taken over by the Saudi sovereign wealth operation, the Public Investment Fund which is controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
Updated 11 April 2024
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French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
  • ‘He is far from being a bad person,’ says Gomis on X
  • Post attracts over 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets, more than 1,500 replies

RIAYDH: French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis on Thursday defended Al-Hilal’s Saudi defender Ali Al-Bulayhi following his altercation with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo on Monday during their Super Cup semifinal showdown.
The Portuguese international was sent off for elbowing Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s narrow 2-1 defeat.
Gomis, a former Al-Hilal player who turned out for the Riyadh giants between 2018 and 2022, said of his former teammate Al-Bulayhi on X: “An exemplary teammate, first come, last left from training. He gives everything for his country and for his club. Actually, he’s one of the best center-backs in the world and I know a few things from my experience. He is far from being a bad person!!!”

Currently playing for Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, Gomis’ post has attracted more than 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets and in excess of 1,500 replies.
One user posted a video of Al-Bulayhi and Gomis hugging, and wrote: “Two historic legends.”
Another user posted a video — which is believed to have been filmed when Gomis left Al-Hilal — of the two players saluting each other and a comment citing the Frenchman as saying “I love you, Bulayhi.”
A user called Yousef commented, saying: “Thank you Gomis for the unforgettable days!”
The Saudi Ministry of Sport denied rumors on Wednesday that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had held discussions with Ronaldo after his controversial sending off.


Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
Updated 10 April 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
  • ‘Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,’ writes Ronaldo
  • Benzema says in a short video clip: ‘Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all’

RIYADH: Al-Nassr’s Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad’s French legend Karim Benzema took to X on Wednesday to wish their followers a happy Eid Al-Fitr.
The Saudi Pro League giants extended their best wishes to followers in Saudi Arabia and across the world on the evening of the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, a celebration that started on Wednesday and ends on Friday.
“Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,” wrote Ronaldo on X as he posted a picture of himself in a white top.
The Frenchman posted a short video clip of himself, saying: “Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all.” He spoke partly in French and partly in Arabic.
Up until this article went up online, the Portuguese player’s post had garnered over 425,000 likes, 36,000 retweets and 9,700 replies.

A follower called Nungua wrote: “Happy Eid Mubarak, my goat. I love you.”
Yaseen said: “I love you.”
Sadaf, a female fan, wrote: “Wishing you a very happy Eid.”
A follower called Hsnain wrote: “Yes, much special day. Thank you. This means a lot from the man of millions.”
“Be blessed, and thank you so much for the kind words,” commented a user called Raisa, who added an Eid Mubarak image as well.
The Al-Ittihad striker’s post generated over 80,000 likes, 7,800 retweets and more than 1,600 replies

“Happy Eid, Karim. Get ready for the match against Al-Hilal,” said a follower called Ahmad on Benzema’s video.
Another follower said: “Eid Mubarak, brother.”
Abdol Mohsen wrote in Arabic: “May God accept from you and us!”
A user called Ali wrote: “The best person ever to wish us Eid Mubarak,” adding four white heart emojis.
A Benzema fan called Abu Zaid replied to the Frenchman’s post in French, saying: “Eid Mubarak, and every year get creative against your opponents.”


Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
  • Saad Al-Shehri’s team beat South Korea in their final friendly before heading out to Doha on Thursday

ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia’s U-23 national football team on Tuesday defeated South Korea 1-0 in their final friendly match before turning their attention to qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The match at Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi concluded the squad’s preparation camp before the start of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar, which will take place from April 15 to May 3, providing a pathway to the football competition at the Paris Olympics this summer.

Jihad Zakry scored the only goal for Saad Al-Shehri’s team in the 72nd minute of a match attended by Sultan Al-Anqari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UAE; Ibrahim Al-Kassim, secretary-general of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation; and Naeem Al-Bakr, board member at SAFF.

The Saudi squad is set to fly out to Doha on Thursday, before kicking off their Group C fixtures against Tajikistan on April 16 at Khalifa International Stadium.

The Green Falcons will then face Thailand (April 19) and Iraq (April 22) at the same venue.

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals.

The winners of the two semifinals will both secure automatic qualification to the Olympic Games regardless of which team wins the final.

The two losing semifinalists will contest the third place, with the winners also booking their spot in Paris, while the losers (fourth-place finishers) will have take part in a play-off against an African qualifier for one final chance at qualification.


Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

RIYADH: The Saudi Sports Ministry denied rumors that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had discussions with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo after his dismissal in a cup game on Monday.
Chatter circulated online that the minister talked to the Portuguese international about the quality of refereeing in the Saudi game.
A ministry source told Arab News: “There is no truth to  the rumors circulating about any contact between HRH the Minister of Sport and the Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo. What is being talked about in this regard is completely untrue.”
Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s 2-1 loss to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup semi-final.