RIYADH: Two goals from Saleh Al-Shehri, plus late strikes from Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Abdullah Radif, ensured Saudi Arabia’s 2026 World Cup qualification campaign got off to a winning start on Thursday with a 4-0 home win over Pakistan.
It was also Roberto Mancini’s first victory since taking over as head coach in late August.
The match in Al-Ahsa, which began in the pouring rain, was mostly one-way traffic but not exactly a vintage performance by the three-time Asian champions, who dominated possession but were never quite able to completely put the game to bed and relax until the final few minutes.
Given the new-look squad assembled by Mancini, it was perhaps no great surprise that the performance was somewhat disjointed. The Green Falcons lacked fluidity in attack and did not look completely comfortable at the back. Still, they got the job done, with Al-Shehri scoring early in each half and the remaining two goals coming in second-half injury time.
The odds heavily favored the hosts against a team ranked 136 places below them and if there were any doubts about the Saudi prospects, they were quickly eased when Al-Shehri fired his team into the lead after just six minutes. The Al-Hilal striker pounced on a loose ball and let fly with an unstoppable left-foot shot from the edge of the area.
Soon after, Mohammed Maran turned and fired just over from a similar position, though a little further out.
If the home fans expected a rush of goals to follow, Pakistan had other ideas. After 18 minutes, Abdul Arshad delivered a cross from the right that was met by Fareed Ullah, who managed to get ahead of Hassan Tambakti but headed the ball just over the bar, ending a move that had started in their own penalty area.
This signaled the start of an impressive period of play from the South Asians, who recorded their first-ever World Cup qualifier victory in September, against Cambodia, and were facing a team aiming for their seventh appearance on the global stage. Pakistan found plenty of space inside the opposition’s half and were able to pass through the lines to good effect.
The first half ended with vehement Saudi appeals for handball by Omer Rao on the edge of the area, but they were waved away.
Just three minutes after the restart, however, a penalty was awarded after Mahmood Khan wrestled Al-Shehri to the ground inside the box. The striker made no mistake from the spot, rolling the ball into the left corner.
He should have completed his hat-trick soon after. Goalkeeper Yousuf Butt palmed a Mukhtar Ali shot into Al-Shehri’s path but he shot straight at the shot-stopper from close range. Moments later, he fired just over the bar when free inside the area.
Though two goals down, Pakistan were still in the game and a fierce Harun Hamid shot, from an Otis Khan free-kick, was denied by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais.
The Saudis finally put the result beyond any doubt in added time, when the impressive Saud Abdulhamid sent over a perfect cross from the right and Ghareeb volleyed into the corner of the net. That still left time for Radif to add a fourth with the final kick of the game.
Mancini and his men will face a much tougher test on Tuesday when they head to Amman to take on Jordan, who drew 1-1 with Tajikistan on Thursday.
Elsewhere, there were mixed results for Arab teams. Lebanon and Palestine played out a 0-0 draw in Sharjah, a game that was moved to the UAE from Beirut and played behind closed doors. Iraq defeated Indonesia 5-1, while Oman beat Taiwan 3-0. Qatar thrashed Afghanistan 8-1 and Kuwait lost 1-0 at home to India.
The top two teams from each of the nine groups of four will progress to the third round of the regional qualifiers.