World Cup 2018: Saudi Arabia Preview
One of the nations assumed to be rank outsiders of the tournament, Saudi Arabia could surprise some punters this summer.
You may not know it yet but Saudi Arabia are kind of a big deal in football.
At the time of writing, nameless ‘investors’ are offering FIFA in excess of $20 billion to create two elite tournaments from scratch.
Whilst their identities are deliberately vague, it is believed that the manoeuvres are part of wider efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to place his country shoulder-to-shoulder with the game’s gatekeepers.
The machinations might have arrived too soon for this summer’s tournament but the Arabic country is sure to have a massive say in football’s governance going forward.
Road to Russia
Bert van Marwijk might have led the Netherlands to the World Cup Final in 2010 but his reputation took a hammering courtesy of his side’s brutish style.
The Dutchman was appointed as Saudi Arabia coach in 2015 and presided over a difficult campaign that saw his team qualify at the last possible attempt.
Fahad Al-Muwallad scored the only goal of a 1-0 victory over Japan in Jeddah but van Marwijk wouldn’t be hanging around for the celebrations.
Departing the job almost immediately, his replacement Edgardo Bauza lasted just five fixtures before he too was shown the door.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, the man last seen managing the decline of Chile’s golden generation, has been appointed as a high-profile stop-gap.
Bookies are offering long odds on the Saudis usurping hosts Russia in the opening fixture of Group A and for good reason too. There is nary a star in a squad where collective effort and teamwork are emphasised.
Van Marwijk’s flexible 4-3-3 was the bedrock of the Green Falcons’ qualifying success but, despite his attacking history with Chile, Pizzi will probably be forced to set up defensively in Russia given the quality of his opponents.
The pace of Fahad Al-Muwallad will be crucial on the counter-attack against the Russians, combined with the trickery of Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri.
All three players joined Spanish clubs in controversial January moves but first-team minutes have been near impossible for any of them to come by since.
Nevertheless, they will be the anchors of a rapid attack that will be hoping to capitalise on any no-shows or off-days.
Key Player: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi
Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is by no means a household name but you don’t score 16 goals in qualifying without having decent pedigree.
The 31-year-old striker is edging past his prime with Al-Nassr yet he remains Pizzi’s chief offensive threat.
In an attempt to sharpen his game before the tournament begins, Al-Sahlawi spent three weeks training with Manchester United in the spring.
Whether it’ll have any impact remains to be seen but, if given half a chance, he has shown the capacity to bury finishes clinically and consistently.
Group A: Uruguay, Egypt, Russia
The circumstances could barely be more difficult for the Green Falcons’ opening game.
Russia will be riled up in front of an expectant home crowd and will be cognisant of the need to extract three points against the weakest side in the group.
Egypt might have missed the same number of World Cups in the past decade but the Pharoahs have far more talent at their disposal.
Uruguay, meanwhile, have proven pedigree that’s backed by a wave of youthful talent.
Prediction: Group Stage exit
Saudi Arabia’s qualification for the knock-out stages would rank as one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets.
Such are the odds against Saudi Arabia in Russia, whose chief hope will be give a good showing against superior sides.
It might be a different story in ten years time but, for now, third place in the group feels like the most realistic aspiration.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group A in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast