FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan identifies five players that will play crucial roles for Saudi Arabia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
After missing out on the past two FIFA World Cups, Saudi Arabia find themselves back among the global elite in 2018.
Although Group A – which also consists of hosts Russia, Uruguay and Egypt – is by no means the toughest group, the Green Falcons will still have to be at their best if they are to reach the Round of 16.
In Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Saudi Arabians have a coach brimming with experience, most notably from his time in charge of Chile and Spanish outfit Valencia.
But which players will he be relying on most? FOX Sports Asia picks out five key men.
With 134 caps to his name, Hawsawi has been a key member of the Saudi Arabia side over the past decade.
Despite now being 34, the three-time Saudi Professional League winner is still a crucial player on the international stage, which is as much a testament to his longevity as it is an indictment on the lack of young centre-backs coming through.
While he is not – and never was – the quickest, Hawsawi reads the game well and is one of the few Asian defenders with the height and strength to match it with some of Europe’s more brutish strikers.
Yaseer Al-Shahrani remains an interesting one because there is genuine competition for the full-back spots with Mansoor Al-Harbi and Mohammed Al-Breik also in contention, although his ability to play on either flank will stand him in good stead.
It feels like Al-Shahrani has been around for awhile now but he is still only 26 and continues to grow in stature, especially after playing a pivotal role in Al Hilal’s run to last year’s AFC Champions League final.
At Asian level, he is rarely beaten in a one-on-one situation and offers plenty of energy going forward. Replicate that at the World Cup against sterner opposition and a few European scouts could just be sitting up and looking on with interest.
Since making his international debut as a 20-year-old, Taisir Al-Jassim has evolved into arguably the most-talented Saudi Arabian player of his generation.
Blessed with composure, vision and being supremely tidy in possession, the Al Ahli icon has won over 130 caps but is now entering the twilight of his career.
Nonetheless, Pizzi will likely still be relying on him in Russia, with his experience and guile in the engine room a rare commodity throughout the squad.
At present, Salem Al-Dawsari looks Saudi Arabia’s best bet of producing a genuine star in the coming years.
Having come through the ranks of Al Hilal, Al-Dawsari recently earned a loan move to La Liga outfit Villarreal and, while he only managed a sole appearance – against Real Madrid no less – honing his craft at elite level looks to have paid dividends, with the winger looking a more mature and accomplished player in recent warm-up friendlies.
With his first major international tournament ending in disappointment three years ago, as Saudi Arabia were eliminated from the 2015 AFC Asian Cup at the group stage, the 26-year-old will undoubtedly be looking to make more of an impact at the World Cup.
Fahad Al-Muwallad was the man of the hour for the Green Falcons last September, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Japan which booked their ticket to Russia 2018.
Like Al-Dawsari, Al-Muwallad has been one of the Saudi Arabians to gain La Liga experience in the past few months with his loan spell at Levante, making two appearances for them off the bench.
While the Jeddah native is a natural winger, he has been used as an out-and-out striker by Pizzi in the last two friendlies against Italy and Peru and that could just be the role he features in, given Mohammad Sahlawi and Muhannad Asiri have not exactly been in convincing form of late.