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.