Team: Saudi Arabia
Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Group: Group A
Other teams in group: Russia, Egypt and Uruguay
Along with England, Saudi Arabia are one of only two squads in this year’s tournament where all players play for domestic clubs.
20 of the 23 man squad play with Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal or Al-Nassr in the Saudi Professional League which is one of the strongest leagues in the middle east.
With around 40 changes of coaching staff since 1994, supporters of Al-Suqour, or the Falcons, were not surprised when Bert Van Marwijk who led them to qualification was relieved of his duties by the SFF in the most bizarre circumstances that arose from him not showing a desire to reside in the kingdom.
Van Marwijk, who guided Holland to the 2010 World Cup final, was immediately appointed Australian coach for this year’s tournament.
His initial replacement, Edgardo Bauza, only lasted two months at the helm before Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took Chile to victory in the 2016 Copa America, was appointed in November 2017.
Pizzi plays a high pressing type of game that was a feature of his period with Chile and it has taken the Saudis time to adapt to his methods, and since he took over they have played nine friendlies in 2018.
Their most recent outing was a 2-1 reversal in Germany’s farewell home game before the tournament, and saw full back Mansoor Al Harbi nutmeg Thomas Muller.
It was a sign that this side are growing in confidence and was in stark contrast to the side who were beaten 4-1 by Iraq in Basra last February.
“I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure,” Pizzi told Arab News this week.
“Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective.”
Following another 2-1 defeat to Italy, in May in which Yahya al Shehri tore up the pitch to score, Italian manager Roberto Mancini commented: “They are fast in attack and have some good players. They can cause problems.”
Its difficult not to mention the impact the month of Ramadan could have on the Saudis, especially with their opening fixture kicking off in daylight.
They are, however, used to international travel and playing whilst fasting during daylight hours and SFF president Adel Ezzat told players they had permission to do as they saw fit, with most of the squad delaying their fasting until their tournament ends.
The few who have been fasting have not done so in the lead-up to warm-up games and are not expected to do so before the Russia match.
Saudi Arabia squad:
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al Owais (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli), Abdullah Al Mayouf (Al Hilal).
Defenders: Mansoor Al Harbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Shahrani (Al Hilal) Mohammed Al Breik (Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al Hilal)
Midfielders: Abdullah Al Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al Faraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al Shehri (Al Nassr)
Forwards: Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad), Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Mohammad Assiri (Al Ahli)
HOW THEY GOT THERE
A Fahad Al Muwallad's goal in their final match, which saw the Saudis beat Japan 1-0 at the King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah, was enough to secure a second place finish and qualification behind Japan and consign Australia to a two legged playoff against Syria by virtue of goal difference.
The Saudis won six of their ten games in a group that also comprised Thailand, Iraq and the UAE in round three of qualification.
Five of those six victories were recorded in Jeddah and it was that home form that helped the side, then managed by Van Marwijk, to achieve one of the five AFC spots in Russia.
AFC qualification takes on three rounds with the Saudis entering in round two where they topped a five team group that included the UAE, Palestine and minnows Malaysia and Timor Leste.
Saudi and the UAE progressed from this group to the final round three
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
With 16 goals in 14 qualification games, the Al-Nassr front man has scored more goals in qualifying then anyone except Robert Lewandowski.
He is quite slow and ponderous, however, and will find the likes of Diego Godin tougher going then the Timor Leste central defenders he encountered during the Saudis 10-0 win in Dili in November 2015.
Al-Muwallad scored the goal that took Saudi to Russia. He saw very little game time on loan at Levante earlier this year but a serious operator with an eye for goal off the bench.
WHERE ARE THEY PLAYING AND STAYING (kick-off Irish time)
June 14th – Saudi Arabia vs Russia (4pm, Luzhniki, Moscow).
June 20th – Saudi Arabia vs Uruguay (4pm, Rostov Stadium, Rostov on Don).
June 25th – Saudi Arabia vs Egypt (3pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd).
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THEM
It is very rare to see Saudi footballers move abroad. A case in point was Saeed Al Owairan who scored one of the all-time great World Cup goals against Belgium in USA ’94.
He, along with the entire squad, was banned from moving abroad by the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) to protect the image of the game domestically.
This restriction was lifted in 1998 but in reality little has changed.
Sami Al-Jabar, who played four games with Wolves in the 2000-2001 season, is the only Saudi player to have played in England before. His rather complicated loan move was terminated by his club Al-Hilal.
In January this year the SFF agreed terms with a number of Spanish clubs to loan them nine Saudi players in order to get experience of playing at a better level of football and no doubt to enhance the brand of La Liga in the gulf.
Of the players involved, winger Salem Al-Dawsari, who was on loan at Villarreal in Spain's top-flight, and striker Fahad Al-Muwallad, who went to Levante, only played for a few minutes at the end of the season when their teams' fate was already decided.
Attacking midfielder Yahia Al-Sheri, who went to Leganes, never played in a match. The remaining six who were loaned to second tier clubs also saw no action.
This is Saudi’s fifth appearance at a World Cup finals.
Their maiden finals appearance in 1994 saw them record their best finish as victories over Belgium and Morocco saw them advance to the last 16 where they were eliminated by Sweden.
They subsequently qualified for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 tournaments, where draws against South Africa in France in 1998 and Tunisia in Germany in 2006 were all they had to show for their efforts.
One other notable result was in Yokohama in 2002 where goals from Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Gary Breen saw the Republic of Ireland record a 3-0 victory and advance to the second round.
THEIR RECENT FORM
Improving steadily, as previously mentioned, playing with panache and confidence in going down 2-1 to Germany last week.
Wins over Algeria and Greece in May showed a marked improvement from the side that were beaten 4-1 and 4-0 by Iraq and Belgium respectively earlier in the year and Mancini endorsed them as threat when losing 2-1 to Italy in Switzerland recently.
Beginning to learn how to play under Pizzi – the opening game against Russia is not straightforward for the hosts.