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World Cup Preview – Saudi Arabia (2/32)

Saudi Arabia
AFC (Asia)
Group A
Best WC Performance: Second Round – 1994
Current World Ranking – 67

History

Saudi Arabia will make their first World Cup Finals appearance in 12 years this summer, their fifth appearance in total.

Despite finishing either Winners or Runners-up in every edition of the Asian Cup from 1984-2000, the gulf nation only made their World Cup bow in USA 1994. That year, they surprised many by finishing second in a group containing Belgium, Morocco and the Netherlands. They faced Sweden in the second round, but came unstuck as Sweden marched on to an eventual Third-place finish.

The Green Falcons qualified for the following three finals but failed to win a single game, exiting at the group stage in each of them.

Squad (Final 23 to be confirmed)

Goalkeepers: Mohammed Alowais, Yasser Almosailem (both Al Ahli), Abdullah Almuaiouf (Al Hilal).

Defenders: Mansoor Alharbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Alshahrani, Mohammed Alburyak (both Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Othman (Al Nassr), Ali Albulayhi (Al Hilal).

Midfielders: Abdullah Alkhaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Alkhaibri, Abdullah Otayf (both Al Hilal), Taiseer Aljassam, Hussain Almoqahwi (both Al Ahli), Salman Alfaraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hatan Bahbir (Al Shabab), Salem Aldawsari (Al Hilal), Yahia Alshehri (Al Nassr).

Forwards: Mohammed Alsahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Asiri (Al Ahli), Fahad Almuwallad (Al Ittihad)

Group Fixtures:
Vs Russia 16:00, 14.06.18 Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
Vs Uruguay 16:00, 20.06.18 Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Vs Egypt 15:00, 25.06.18 Volgograd Arena, Volgograd

Manager – Juan Antonio Pizzi

The Green Falcons are managed by former Chile boss Juan Antonio Pizzi. A much-travelled striker, Pizzi was born in Argentina but played 22 games for Spain in the 1990s.
Having turned to management in 2005, he made a name for himself in South America before attracting the attention of managerial conveyor-belt Valencia in 2013. Needless to say, he was moved on soon after, but led Chile to the Copa America Centenario in 2016.
Following Chile’s failure to qualify for Russia, Pizzi resigned. In November, he was snapped up by Saudi Arabia, tasked with getting out of a generous World Cup Group A.

Qualification

By virtue of their ranking, Saudi Arabia gained a bye through to the second round of AFC qualifying, where they were grouped with Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia, and the UAE.

They topped this group with 20 points and remained undefeated throughout, memorably being awarded a 3-0 victory against Malaysia after Malay supporters threw objects onto the pitch, forcing the game to be abandoned in the 87th minute, with the Green Falcons 2-1 up at the time.

In the third and final round of qualifying, they were drawn in Group B, alongside Japan, Australia, Iraq, Thailand and the UAE again.

They made an excellent start, going unbeaten and winning three of their first four matches but panic set in after three defeats in the next five. In September, a tense final game victory over Group winners Japan sent them to Russia ahead of Australia, who were consigned to an intercontinental-playoff.

Captain – Osama Hawsawi

Veteran defender Osama Hawsawi will wear the armband for the Green Falcons. Having made his debut in 2007, Hawsawi has since amassed over 130 senior caps.

After coming through the youth setup at Al-Wahda, Hawsawi has spent his entire club career playing in Saudi Arabia, bar a disappointing seven-month spell with Anderlecht in 2012. Currently, he is in his second spell at Al-Hilal, and helped the club to back to back titles over the last two years.

Excellent in the air and with an eye for goal, expect to see his 1.87m frame venture forward at every set-piece.

Danger man – Mohammad Al-Sahlawi

With a record of 28 goals from 32 international appearances, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is the Green Falcons main goal threat.

A two-time Saudi League player of the year, Al-Sahlawi has played for Al-Nassr since 2009, having come through the youth setup at Al-Qadisiya.

Premier League Players

As with Russia, there will be no Premier League representation in the Saudi squad this summer. In fact, no Saudi player has ever played in the Premier League!

Three players in their preliminary squad play club football in Spain, with the rest all playing in Saudi Arabia.

Prediction

It is hard to see where Saudi Arabia will pick up any points, despite being in the easiest group statistically.

Having lost to Iraq, Oman and Bulgaria in the last 12 months, confidence was dented even further after Belgium dispatched them 4-0 in a friendly in March.

The tournament opener against Russia will test the temperament of a squad who rarely travel outside of the Middle East, before the ageing Osama and Omar Hawsawi tackle the formiddable frontline of Uruguay.

They finish their group campaign against neighbours Egypt, but may already be eliminated.

Most bookies have the Green Falcons as overwhelming favourites to finish bottom of the group, and odds as long as 11-1 to progress.

Written by Sam Hanys.

Sam Hanys

Ipswich Town fan and Loughborough University student.

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