06/03/2024

The Saudi Arabian National Team in training. Photo Credit: Saudi Arabia Football Federation

Saudi Arabia has shaken up the football world in the last eighteen months, with their domestic clubs spending billions to attract some of the world’s best players to their domestic club competition.

It is a strategy to raise the profile of football in the oil rich middle eastern nation, and hopefully the standard of home-grown players for their national team, which has been in the doldrums since reaching the final of the Asian Cup back in 2007.

So, will the influx of world-class players impact Saudi Arabia’s performance at the latest Asian Cup edition in Qatar?

History

The Saudis have a rich history in the Asian Cup, having reached the final on four successive occasions from 1984 to 1996, winning the trophy three times during this period.

They reached the final of the competition again in 2007 (losing to Iraq), but haven’t managed to get beyond the round of 16 in three attempts since that final loss in Jakarta 17 years ago.

The Green Falcons were eliminated by Japan in the last 16 of the 2019 tournament in neighbouring UAE four years ago, and will be desperate to go further this time.

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Since their now legendary 2-1 victory over eventual champions Argentina in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia have had mixed fortunes.

They then proceeded to lose eight of their next nine games – including World Cup group stage losses to Poland and Mexico to eliminate them from the tournament – with a sole draw against Nigeria the only time they avoided defeat during this streak.

This prompted the Saudi Football Federation to hire Italian legend Roberto Mancini in August 2023, resulting in an upturn in fortunes.

Having started slowly under Mancini with defeats to Costa Rica and South Korea, the Saudis are now unbeaten in their last five, including victories in their two World Cup qualifying fixtures with Pakistan and Jordan in November.   

Players to watch

Striker Saleh Al-Shehri is the focal point for the team up front and has scored 15 goals in 30 national team appearances since his debut in 2020.

The six-foot tall striker plays his club football for Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pro League, alongside Neymar and Ruben Neves, but has found his opportunities limited in recent months due to the arrival of Alexander Mitrovic to the club last year.

He has flourished on the international stage however, scoring 4 goals in the recent World Cup qualifying victories.

Often providing the bullets for Al-Shehri in the national team is winger Salem Al-Dawsari, who is another attacking threat to watch at this tournament.

The 32-year-old winger also gets on the scoresheet regular himself, with 22 goals in 79 international appearances (including one against Argentina in that famous 2022 victory). He also plays alongside Al-Shehri at club level with Al-Hilal.

Manager in focus

As mentioned above, Saudi Head Coach Roberto Mancini took over the role in August last year, two weeks after being sacked as Italian national team coach due to their failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

Prior to this, Mancini famously guided the Italians to victory at Euro 2020 – beating England at Wembley in the final – and has managed Manchester City, Inter Milan and Galatasaray in a glittering managerial career.

The Italian has instilled a solid defensive structure in his new charges since taking over six months ago, with the Saudis not conceding a goal in their last five games.

Prediction

Having risen to 56th in the latest FIFA rankings, Saudi Arabia are the fifth highest ranked team in this year’s tournament behind Japan, South Korea, Australia and arch-rivals Iran.

As a result, they should be the strongest team in Group F, which consists of Thailand (ranked 113th), Kyrgyzstan (98th) and Oman (74th), and will expect to progress comfortably to the last 16 where they will face the runners up in Group E (potentially Jordan or Bahrain).

After that it gets tricky for the Saudis, who are likely to meet Australia in the last eight.  

Although they have firepower up front and will be tough to breakdown defensively due to Mancini’s cunning, we expect the road to end for Saudi Arabia at the Quarter Final stage, with our Socceroos just edging them in a tense game.  

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