Playing at a World Cup for the sixth time, Saudi Arabia face an uphill task to get beyond the group stage at Qatar 2022. They undoubtedly head into Group C as the underdogs, joined by Argentina, Mexico and Poland – three countries with more tournament pedigree and better recent form than their Gulf state opponents.
It’s 28 years since the Green Falcons first qualified for a World Cup but their last-16 exit at USA 94 remains their best performance, as they advanced from a group containing Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco before going down 3-1 to Sweden in the first knockout match. Their famous 1-0 group victory over Belgium included one of the greatest World Cup goals in history as Saeed Al-Owairan picked the ball up deep in his own half and brilliantly beat four Belgian defenders before slotting home an incredible individual effort.
However, that was the high-water mark for the Saudis at football’s global showpiece with group-stage exits coming in each of their subsequent four appearances at the tournament, although they did get their first win since 1994 when beating Egypt 2-1 in their final group game at Russia 2018.
Veteran French coach Herve Renard is the man tasked with trying to get the class of 2022 to recapture past glories, having previously managed the likes of Zambia, Ivory Coast and Morocco, but in reality, getting a result in any of their three group games would represent an impressive achievement. The Saudis were somewhat goal-shy during qualification, as they scored just nine times, excluding penalties, in their 10 games and Renard will need to get the attack firing if they are to spring an upset.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Tuesday 22 November: Argentina vs Saudi Arabia – 10:00
Saturday 26 November: Poland vs Saudi Arabia – 13:00
Wednesday 30 November: Saudi Arabia vs Mexico – 19:00
Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), Nawaf Al-Aqidi (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Al-Yami (Al-Ahly)
Defenders: Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Amri (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Madu (Al-Nassr), Hassan Tambakti (Al-Shabab), Sultan Al-Ghanam (Al-Nassr), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal)
Midfielders: Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Riyadh Sharahili (Abha), Ali Al-Hassan (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Malki (Al-Hilal), Sami Al-Najei (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), Nasser Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Abdulrahman Al-Aboud (Ittihad), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab)
Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Shabab), Haitham Asiri (Al-Ahly), Saleh Al-Shehri (Al-Hilal) Firas Al-Buraikan (Al-Fateh)
Ones to watch
Star – Salem Al-Dawsari: If Saudi Arabia are to improve on an uninspiring record of just nine non-penalty goals in their 10 World Cup qualifiers, then winger Salem Al-Dawsari will need to play a crucial role. Along with Fahad Al-Muwallad, Al-Dawsari is generally charged with providing the Saudis’ creative spark and scored the winner when they defeated Egypt 2-1 in their final group game of the 2018 World Cup. The 31-year-old has 17 goals in 66 matches for his country and is one of the few members of the squad to have played domestic football outside of Saudi Arabia, having had a brief loan spell with Villarreal in 2018 – during which he made a solitary first-team appearance, off the bench against Real Madrid.
Breakout talent – Firas Al-Buraikan: At just 22 years old, striker Firas Al-Buraikan will be hoping to make his mark on the world stage, as he looks to improve a tally of six goals in 24 games at international level since making his debut in 2019. He did score some crucial goals during the World Cup qualifiers, netting in 1-0 wins over Japan and Oman, as well as in the 3-2 triumph over China. The Al-Fateh star has also tasted success at youth level, helping Saudi Arabia to glory at the AFC U-19 Championship in 2018 and the AFC U-23 Asian Cup earlier this year – finding the net in the final of the latter, a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan.
In a tricky group containing one of the pre-tournament favourites Argentina, a Mexico side that have made it to the knockout stage in each of their last eight World Cup appearances and a Robert Lewandowski-inspired Poland, it’s hard to see where Saudi Arabia will pick up a point, let alone how they can advance from Group C. Avoiding three losses would be something of an achievement and a group-stage exit feels inevitable. Knocked out in the group stage.
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