Everybody expected Juan Antonio Pizzi to be at the World Cup, but not with Saudi Arabia.
Fresh from winning the Copa America Centenario with Chile, the Argentine embarked on a disastrous CONMEBOL qualifying campaign which saw the country’s ‘golden generation’ miss out.
Alexis Sánchez’s loss, however, is Yahya Al-Shehri’s gain.
The talented trequartista stars on the cover of FIFA games in his home country and it’s easy to see why: his sparkling form for Ettifaq saw him make a record move to Al-Nassr in 2013, in a sign of his growing profile.
This season, Al-Nassr might have laboured behind eventual champions Al-Hilal but Al-Shehri wasn’t around for the victory party, having joined Spanish outfit Léganes in January.
The move, which saw a clutch of the country’s brightest talents transfer to Spain, was greeted with ridicule in most quarters.
A subsequent failure to appear in any league fixtures lent weight to the criticism but woe befall any defence that fails to appreciate the talents of ‘the Arabic Messi’ fully.
Having been capped at various levels by his country, Al-Shehri finally made his debut for the Green Falcons in 2009.
Nestled behind predatory striker Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, Al-Shehri will look to exploit the pace and trickery of Fahad Al-Muwallad and Salem Al-Dawsari.
Both players spent the latter half of the campaign with Villarreal and Levante respectively; both, like their compatriot, struggled to make an impact.
All three, however, will be eager to impress on their nations’ first World Cup appearance in three attempts.
Al-Shehri has all the attributes one would expect in a creative midfielder.
Slight, jinking and blessed with a poisonous left foot, the 27-year-old loves to come deep in order to prompt offensive plays.
He is as comfortable cutting in from the right-hand side as he is threading gentle passes through the middle with Al-Sahlawi hoping to feed on his creativity to augment a record boasting 28 goals in 37 appearances.
Living rigorously to type, Al-Shehri shares most of the traditional weaknesses for a player of his position. He is small and stocky, and, at 5 foot 4, few would claim he is a natural athlete. Given close attention by a robust defence, he can be bullied out of games.
REUTERS/Marcelo Del Pozo
Al-Shehri can usefully find his teammates in space, but will largely struggle if the players in front of him fail to make the requisite effort. In those circumstances, his strengths are largely nullified.
The youngster might be flattered by comparisons with Messi, but a negligent opponent could be made to pay if they fail to account for his impish talents properly.
In an age of scrupulous scouting and pivot tables, he really shouldn’t be an unknown quantity heading into the first game against Russia on June 12th.
Anything other than bottom place in the group would represent a massive coup for the Saudis, but any hopes of doing it rely heavily on their silky playmaker.
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