Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers

Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers
There was a slight bit of pressure on Roberto Mancini’s side to show that Saudi Arabia were still the force seen 12 months ago in Qatar. (X: @SaudiNT)
Short Url
Updated 23 November 2023
Follow

Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers

Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers
  • Palestine show resilience, Qatar bounce back, UAE improving under Bento

RIYADH: The journey toward qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is underway, with Asia’s big guns kick-starting their campaigns over the past week.

With the tournament expanding to feature 48 teams for the first time, there is increased interest down the line as nations that have historically fallen short now fancy their chances of securing a place at football’s global showpiece.

After the first two match days of the second round of qualifying, there are five things we learned.

Palestine full of fight

Given the circumstances of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the Palestine team could have been forgiven if their minds were elsewhere during the international window.

Having only just escaped into Jordan to allow them to prepare, many left behind family and friends stuck in the firing line making for an incredibly stressful few weeks for every member of the team.

While their short-term future is unknown ahead of the Asian Cup in just a few months — returning to Palestine may not be an option — their performances against Lebanon, and especially Australia, showed how much potential exists in the side.

A goalless draw with Lebanon was a fine way to start the campaign, and although they ultimately lost 1-0 to Australia, the performance from Makroum Dabab’s side was one to be proud of. Were it not for a heroic save from Socceroos goalkeeper Mathew Ryan just before half-time, Palestine could even have snatched a draw.

While no one knows what the future holds for Palestine, on the back of these two games they can dream of reaching the third round.

Saudis start in style and build for the future

Coming into the latest round of matches with just one win from their past 11 games, there was a slight bit of pressure on Roberto Mancini’s side to show that Saudi Arabia were still the force seen 12 months ago in Qatar.

A first-up fixture against Pakistan, the lowest-ranked team in qualifying, was always likely to result in a victory, but with injury ruling out several key personnel, Mancini took the chance to blood a new generation of talent.

The wily Italian tactician clearly has an eye on building for the future, with six players 25 or under and six with five caps or fewer in the starting 11.

The clash in Jordan presented a potential banana skin, but thanks to a brace from Saleh Al-Shehri, the Green Falcons put the game to bed before half time and eased some of the concerns that had been growing before the Asian Cup in January.

Early signs promising for Bento’s UAE

It has been a lean few years for the UAE despite making back-to-back Asian Cup semi-finals in 2015 and 2019, the latter coming on home soil but ending in a humiliating defeat to Qatar.

Having gone through no fewer than five coaching changes during the last qualifying campaign, the UAE FA has put faith in Paulo Bento — who took South Korea to the Round of 16 at the World Cup — to guide the team through this campaign.

And while the sample size is small, the early signs are promising under the Portuguese manager having now won five games on the bounce, including wins over Nepal and Bahrain to start the qualifying campaign.

The UAE are one nation that should fancy their chances of snatching one of the eight automatic qualifying slots for 2026 and they could not have asked for a better start to life under their new manager. The question now is how far he can take them?

Qatar bounce back

It has been a bruising 12 months for Qatar since their World Cup humiliation, in which they crashed out having lost all three games and scoring just the solitary goal.

After the high of winning the Asian Cup in 2019, it was an embarrassing reality check and left plenty of questions as to where the team goes next after Felix Sanchez departed after five years in the job.

The answer was into the arms of Carlos Quieroz, the former Iran coach who helped guide Iran to World Cups in 2014, 2018, and 2022.

Qatar will face tougher tests ahead than a depleted Afghanistan and India, but 8-1 and 3-0 wins will do their confidence no harm at all. What will be most encouraging is that three of the goalscorers — Mostafa Meshaal, Tameem Mansour, and Yusuf Abdurisag — are under 25, while Almoez Ali, still only 27, looks to be back to his 2019 form with five goals in two matches.

This is a different Iraq side

Ever since their historic and inspiring Asian Cup success in 2007, Iraq has been a side that has promised so much but delivered so little.

With just one World Cup appearance to their name, way back in 1986, the Lions of Mesopotamia enter this qualifying campaign in a buoyant mood after the Gulf Cup success on home soil earlier this year.

Under Spaniard Jesus Casas, there is a strange sense of calm and stability surrounding Iraq, not something that has often been said about a side that it seems is only ever a moment away from chaos.

A thumping win at home against Indonesia was backed up by an important 1-0 win away to Vietnam that came courtesy of a 97th-minute goal from Mohanad Ali. That the goal came so late showed the strength and fortitude now in the side, and with the talent they have, that can take them a long way.


Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab
Updated 26 February 2024
Follow

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

Ronaldo and Talisca give Al-Nassr a narrow win at Al-Shabab

RIYADH: It was the Ronaldo and Talisca show on Sunday as Al-Nassr moved to within four points of Al-Hilal at the top of the Roshn Saudi League with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Riyadh rivals Al-Shabab.

Three times Al-Nassr took the lead, once through Cristiano Ronaldo and twice through Anderson Talisca. Twice Al-Shabab — who will feel they did enough to earn at least a point — equalized, but they were unable to do so for a third time.

Al-Nassr started brightly with Al-Shabab goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Absi, in for the injured Kim Seung-gyu, having to push a Marcelo Brozovic shot over the bar in the sixth minute.

Al-Shabab’s new star signing Ivan Rakitic tried his luck from outside the area after 10 minutes, but Waleed Abdullah was equal to the attempt from the former Barcelona star.

Sadio Mane then netted before being adjudged to have been offside when making his run.

Abdullah then had to make a more difficult save, getting down quickly to stop a Yannick Carrasco effort that was creeping in at the near post.

Al-Nassr were then awarded a penalty. A corner resulted in Mane shooting from the edge of the area and it struck the hand of Romain Saiss. Up stepped Ronaldo and he made no mistake. The visiting fans paid tribute to their hero and the chant of “Cristiano Ronaldo” could be heard ringing around for some time.

Al-Shabab equalized with a penalty of their own after Carlos Junior was brought down in the area. Just as Ronaldo did, Carrasco converted and the two teams went in at the break on equal terms.

Al-Nassr were back in front within two minutes of the restart. Otavio found Talisca on the edge of the area and, despite the close attention of defenders, the Brazilian made room for himself to find the bottom corner, though Al-Absi did manage to get a hand on it.

His opposite number Abdullah then had to get down to save an awkward shot from Nader Al-Sharari.

Just after the hour Brozovic should have given the visitors a welcome cushion. Freed by Otavio, the Croatian bore down on goal from a central position but, on the edge of the area, he shot tamely into the arms of Al-Absi with Talisca to his right screaming for the ball.

Al-Shabab then equalized for the second time. The goal had been coming and was deserved as Habib Diallo found space on the right of the area and sent over a perfect pass to the opposite post where Carlos Junior was on hand to score from close range.

Al-Shabab were on top and looked dangerous, but with three minutes remaining, Talisca won it for the visitors. A beautiful through ball from Abdullah Al-Khaibari released the Brazilian who slotted home from just inside the area to maintain Al-Nassr’s title challenge.

There was still time for Shabab’s Abdullah Radif to pick up two yellow cards and receive his marching orders to complete a frustrating afternoon for the hosts.

Earlier in the day, Al-Feiha defeated relegation strugglers Abha 3-2 to move above Al-Shabab into 10th. 


Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat

Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat
Updated 24 February 2024
Follow

Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat

Saudi Arabia bow out of 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after Guam defeat
  • Kingdom were playing for third place in Group A
  • Tournament is the first major 11-a-side competition for females to be held in the KSA

JEDDAH: A 2-0 defeat against Guam on Friday saw the women’s national team of Saudi Arabia end their participation in the 2024 West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship.
Saudi Arabia and Guam were playing for third place in Group A with qualification out of reach for both teams following previous results against Jordan and Lebanon.
The 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship is the first major 11-a-side tournament for females to be hosted in Saudi Arabia.
Guam scored a brace in the clash, although the Saudi women played well, going close on numerous occasions.
The Saudi side lost their opener 3-1 against Jordan and were defeated 3-2 by Lebanon prior to Friday’s match.
Progress has been made under new head coach Lluis Cortes and the team gave a solid account of themselves against strong opposition.
The players will return to their club teams where they will resume playing in the second season of the Women’s Premier League until April.
The WAFF Women’s Championship is just the latest international football tournament to take place in Jeddah, which hosted the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup and the 2022 WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship.


Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
Updated 23 February 2024
Follow

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
  • After a scare when they fell behind to Sepahan of Iran, Al-Hilal rallied to win the game 3-1 and go through 6-2 on aggregate
  • With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition

Al-Hilal defeated Sepahan of Iran 6-2 on aggregate on Thursday to book a mouth-watering Asian Champions League quarter-final tie against Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad.

After winning the first leg 3-1 away from home last week, the four-time winners of the competition survived a scare in the second leg before comfortably clinching victory by the same scoreline.

This was a bit harsh on the visitors, who played their part in an entertaining and open clash during which both sides created plenty of chances. In the end, however, as Neymar watched from the stands, the Saudis progressed comfortably, helped along the way when Sepahan were reduced to 10 men while ahead in the second half.

Salem Al-Dawsari, making his 400th appearance for the club, got the equalizer in the 76th minute, after Farshad Ahmadzadeh put the visitors in front nine minutes after the break. With just seven minutes left on the clock, Ruben Neves came up with a spectacular strike that gave Al-Hilal the lead, and there was still time for Aleksandar Mitrovic to add a third.

In the end, it was a more comfortable result for Al-Hilal than looked likely in the 54th minute, when Ali Aarabi swung over a cross from the left and Ramin Rezaeian headed the ball back across the face of goal for Ahmadzadeh to bundle home from close range.

The sparked plenty of nerves among the home fans in the Kingdom Arena but they were able to breathe a little easier when, with 19 minutes remaining, the visitors were reduced to 10 men. Siavash Yazadni brought down Malcom as the Brazilian was running through on goal and, after a check with the video assistant referee, he was shown a straight red card.

Al-Hilal quickly took advantage of the one-man advantage when, five minutes later, Ali Al-Bulaihi found Al-Dawsari outside the area and the winger turned to beat two defenders, then stroked the ball home. At that point, the home fans could rest easy in the knowledge that their team were as good as through to the last eight.

It was a fine goal by Al-Dawsari but just six minutes later, Neves pulled something even more special out of the hat. The ball fell to the Portuguese star outside the area, he chested it down and volleyed home a curling shot that flew into the top corner.

In the final moments of added time, Mitrovic scored a goal that might not live as long in the memory but showed his killer instinct as he swept home a smart pass from Malcom to make it 3-1.

With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition. The showdown between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal is the quarter-final tie that many fans, inside and outside the country, will be most looking forward to. The first leg is scheduled for March 5.


Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
Updated 22 February 2024
Follow

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
  • The Jeddah giants leave it late but progress after a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan

Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad squeezed into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Thursday thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan, following a goalless draw in the first leg last week.

The Jeddah giants recovered from a Karim Bemzema own goal midway through the first half to take control of the game, level the score and eventually go through thanks to a late Navbahor own goal. It was no less than the Saudis deserved as they made most of the running and created the bulk of the chances.

Fabinho had the earliest opportunity to open the scoring but the former Liverpool midfielder fired just over the bar from outside the box.

The opening goal came from a familiar source but not in the way fans expected. The home crowd was silenced in the 25th minute when Jamshid Iskanderov floated over a free-kick from the right, and former Real Madrid star Benzema met it on the edge of the six-yard box to send a powerful header into his own net past a startled Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

The goal came out of nothing, against the run of play, but Al-Ittihad quickly regrouped, refocused their efforts and continued to dominate the game.

Benzema redeemed himself on the stroke of half-time, nodding down a corner to the near post where Abderrazak Hamdallah was waiting to sweep the ball home from close range.

The second half unfolded in much the same fashion, with Al-Ittihad enjoying most of the possession and creating more of the chances. Midway through the period, however, they were reminded of Navbahor’s goal threat when Filip Ivankovic fired just wide from the right side of the area.

With 15 minutes remaining, Benzema had the ball in the net, the correct one this time, when he fired home after some good work from Ahmed Hegazy. After a lengthy intervention, however, the video assistant referee ruled it out.

This only delayed the celebrations of the home fans, though, as three minutes from time the Tigers took a decisive lead, thanks to another own goal.

Substitute Saleh Al-Amri’s corner from the right failed to clear the first man but, in swinging a boot, Toma Tabatadze sliced his attempted clearance and the ball looped over the keeper into the far corner of the net.

Navbahor did their utmost to get back on level terms but time was against them and it was not to be. As a result, Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners of the competition in 2004 and 2005, remain in the hunt for a third continental crown.


Green Falcons exit 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after loss to Lebanon

Green Falcons exit 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after loss to Lebanon
Updated 22 February 2024
Follow

Green Falcons exit 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after loss to Lebanon

Green Falcons exit 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after loss to Lebanon
  • Hosts now cannot reach knockout stages of the West Asian Football Federation tournament with only a match against Guam left in Group A

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia have exited the 2024 WAFF Women’s Championship after losing 3-2 to Lebanon at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah on Wednesday night, Arriyadiyah have reported.

The Green Falcons have no points from two defeats in Group A, having lost their opener 3-1 to Jordan.

The Jordanian team leads the group with a maximum of six points, on goal difference from Lebanon. Both teams have now progressed to the semifinals.

Guam, who Saudi Arabia play in a dead rubber fixture on Friday, sit bottom of the group with no points after two losses.

Lebanon took the lead after only three minutes through Christy Maalouf, and only three minutes later doubled their lead through an own goal from Saudi Arabia’s Nouf Saud.

Syntia Salha seemed to have put the match beyond the Green Falcons with a third for Lebanon from the penalty spot on 38 minutes.

The Kingdom’s players showed commendable spirit in the second half against strong opponents to pull back two goals, from Lana Abdulrazak (61) and Seba Tawfiq (81) but could not pull off what would have been a stunning comeback.