19:00 BST, Sunday 3rd June, Kybunpark (St Gallen, Switzerland)
Saudi Arabia are onto their second manager since Bert van Marwijk’s departure, the Dutchman failed to agree a new contract after successfully guiding the Green Falcons to their first World Cup finals since 2006.
Juan Antonio Pizzi, Copa America winner with Chile in 2016, is the latest manager to step into the breach. The Argentine subsequently failed to qualify for the finals with La Roja, and will look for redemption this summer with underdogs Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have already played three warmup friendlies in May, beating both Algeria and Greece 2-0, before a respectable 2-1 defeat to Italy. Pizzi is clearly keen to play as many preparation games as possible in order to give his players an opportunity to put his style of football into practice.
As a side that have also qualified for the finals, in Peru they face a step up in quality of opposition, although ironically the Peruvians lost home and away to Pizzi’s Chile in the qualifiers.
Coach Ricardo Gareca is preparing Peru for their first finals in 36 years and helping his players cope with the pressure of the nation weighing on their shoulders will be crucial. A 2-0 win over Scotland marked a good start to their warm up matches.
La Blanquirroja’s campaign turned on a huge stroke of luck. After losing 2-0 to Bolivia in La Paz, they were awarded the three points after it came to light that the Bolivians had fielded an ineligible player, and these points proved crucial in edging Pizzi’s Chile. Gareca will be hoping for similar fortune this summer, starting on Sunday against the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia Lineup
Totally transforming the way Saudi Arabia play in such a short period of time ahead of the World Cup is a difficult ask for Pizzi, who will stick with van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
Pizzi has, however, evolved the Green Falcons into a more progressive passing side, trying to move away from the more direct approach favoured by his Dutch predecessor.
A creative midfielder like Abdullah Otayf may have more opportunities to shine under the stewardship of Pizzi.
Peru are very much a 4-2-3-1 side under Ricardo Gareca and that won’t change this summer.
With all-time leading goalscorer Paolo Guerrero having been banned by WADA, Jefferson Farfan has taken the lead in their World Cup warm up games. Whilst the Guerrero decision has been overturned, this clash with the Saudis will likely to be too early for his comeback.
Andre Carrillo spent the season on loan at Watford and could cause the ageing Al-Harbi problems down Peru’s right flank.
Key Players: Salem Al-Dawsari (Saudi Arabia) vs Jefferson Farfan (Peru)
Salem Al-Dawsari may not be a household name yet in Europe, but in Saudi Arabia, he is a star. The skilful attacker possesses great creativity and an eye for goal, scoring against Greece in May.
One of three Saudis to be sent to Spain after an agreement with La Liga, and just days after that goal against Greece, he finally made his debut for loan club Villarreal. Coming off the bench with 33 minutes to go against Real Madrid, Al-Dawsari played a part in the Yellow Submarine’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down.
He could play a key role in breaking down Peru, but a man that Saudi Arabia’s defenders will have to watch out for in St Gallen is Jefferson Farfan. Despite coming towards the end of a successful career that has included fruitful stints at PSV and Schalke, an in-form Farfan is still a dangerous proposition, especially for a Saudi defence beginning to creak under the strains of time.
With Guerrero’s ban having been lifted, Farfan will be desperate to stake his claim to be the lone striker in Pizzi’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
WIll Guerrero or Farfan get the nod from Pizzi?
Paolo Guerrero is Peru’s all-time leading goalscorer, but the former Bayern Munich and Hamburg forward has only just had his drugs ban overturned. He is Peru’s all-time leading scorer with 32 goals for his country.
Jefferson Farfan has also scored a number of key goals for his country and will believe that he should be the man to lead the line. Having two talented forwards to fit into one spot is a nice problem for Pizzi to have.
How will Saudi Arabia’s Spanish-based players fare?
In January, Salem Al-Dawsari, Yahya Al-Shehri, and Fahad Al-Muwallad were all sent to various La Liga clubs after an agreement was struck between the Saudi Arabia FA and La Liga themselves.
With all three having hardly featured, there has been much debate as to whether the lack of football will have hurt the three talismanic figures ahead of the summer, or whether the exposure to top European training methods will have benefitted them regardless.
It will be interesting then, to see how the three get on as Saudi Arabia step up their preparations, as the opening game with Russia on June 14 edges ever closer.
Has Pizzi managed to evolve Saudi Arabia?
With most arguing that Saudi Arabia received a favourable draw for the finals, it will be interesting to see whether the more progressive Pizzi has managed to successfully evolve the Green Falcons into a side that can patiently break a side down with the quality Peru possess.
Prediction: Saudi Arabia 1-1 Peru
Peru probably goes into this game as favourites, but the Saudis shouldn’t be underestimated. The 34-year-old Osama Hawsawi will have his hand’s full marshalling 33-year-old Farfan, but is capable.
If the likes of Al-Muwallad, Al Shehri, and Al-Dawsari play well, Peru’s equally ageing defence could have quite a few problems of their own to think about.
Can Saudi Arabia cause an upset against Peru? Let us know below.
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