Saudi Arabia overcome dreadful start to restore pride

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan assesses Saudi Arabia’s performance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup following their group stage elimination.

The naysayers were out in full force after the opening day of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

And, to be fair, who could blame them?

Saudi Arabia, one of Asia’s five hopefuls, were handled a humbling 5-0 defeat at the hands of hosts Russia, where they were completely outplayed by the lowest-ranked team in the tournament and had some questioning whether they were worthy of a place at the World Cup.

It wasn’t that Saudi Arabia were that bad – when they did have possession, they actually did play some decent football.

It was more of the fact that when they did not have it, they looked disinterested and offered little resistance, allowing their opponents to cruise to an emphatic victory.

Yet, 180 minutes later, at least some pride has been restored, even if the Green Falcons are ultimately bowing out of the World Cup once more at the group stage.

In all honesty, it would not have been difficult to better their opening display but Juan Antonio Pizzi’s charges did more than that on Match Day 2 as they narrowly fell 1-0 to an Uruguay side boasting Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Osama Hawsawi had Cavani in his pocket throughout the 90 minutes.

Were it not for a mistake by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, who flapped at a corner to give Suarez the only goal of the game in the 23rd minute, it could have been a far different story.

For much of the second half, the Saudis actually looked the more dangerous of the two sides and had Uruguay resorting to hopeful long balls on the counter.

Still, their exit had been sealed with a game to spare and, even on Monday, almost no one gave them a chance against Egypt, who were led by Liverpool star Mohamed Salah.

Another defeat looked on the cards when some awful defending allowed Salah to open the scoring in the 22nd minute.

First, possession was cheaply given away near the halfway line and then centre-backs Osama Hawsawi and Motaz Hawsawi somehow allowed Salah to find space in between them and send a lob over a stranded Yaseer Al-Mosailem.

But then, something clicked into gear and the same Saudi Arabia that dominated an entire half against Uruguay turned up once more.

Even when Fahad Al-Muwallad had a penalty saved by Egypt’s 45-year-old debutant Essam El Hadary, they refused to be deterred.

Another spot-kick just before the break was duly converted by Salman Al-Faraj and, after they spurned a handful of excellent chances in the second 45, Salem Al-Dawsari rose to the occasion in the fifth minute of injury-time with a clinical strike to seal a come-from-behind 2-1 triumph.

It meant a positive – if ultimately futile – end to a campaign that had begun in embarrassing fashion and, more importantly, Saudi Arabia were able to prove their worth on the biggest stage of all.

For many, it was also a chance to show they can match it with the world’s best and potentially earn a big move to Europe.

At the age of 34, captain Osama Hawsawi is unlikely to be one of those in the shop window but he deserves plenty of credit for the way he admirably led his side and completely nullified someone of Cavani’s ilk.

Al-Shahrani and Al-Dawsari have displayed their undeniable talent.

Meanwhile, wingers Salem Al-Dawsari and Hattan Bahebri, as well as full-back Yaseer Al-Shahrani, also showed that they are ready to depart the Saudi Professional League for greener pastures.

Nonetheless, it was perhaps Abdullah Otayf – the unsung hero in the heart of the Saudi midfield – that came away with his reputation enhanced the most.

The Al Hilal anchorman provided an effective shield in front of his defence as he broke up opposition attacks with ease, but was also excellent with his distribution.

In fact, it was his calm layoff when it might have been easier to blaze away at goal that set up Al-Dawsari for the winner against Egypt.

Whether these players do indeed take the next step in their careers remains to be seen.

What is evident is that Saudi Arabia certainly can produce talented individuals that – with the right mentality and coaching – are able to cause a stir even on world football’s biggest stage.

And, even if it was in question after the first 90 minutes, the Green Falcons can soar away from Russia with their pride intact and their heads held high.