5 things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s successful World Cup qualification journey

Saudi Arabia are heading to the World Cup for a sixth time. (AFP)

  • The Green Falcons are heading to Qatar 2022 after a relatively tension-free end to their Group B campaign

Saudi Arabia are heading to the World Cup for a sixth time.

On Thursday afternoon, qualification for Qatar 2022 was confirmed when Japan beat Australia 2-0 in Sydney, and later that day the Green Falcons drew 1-1 with China in Sharjah.

Herve Renard, his players and Saudi fans can now start looking forward to a winter in Doha.

Here are five things we learned about their successful qualifying campaign.

1. Such an early dead-rubber is testament to the team’s success

Saudi Arabia just had to match whatever Australia did against Japan, to book a place at a sixth World Cup. With a minute of normal time remaining, the scoreline was 0-0 but then Kaoru Mitoma, the Brighton and Hove Albion star who is currently on loan in Belgium, came off the bench and scored twice in four minutes to write himself in a place in the history of Saudi Arabian football. And that was it. Suddenly the Green Falcons were through and didn’t need anything from the match against China.

It must have been a strange atmosphere for coach Herve Renard to prepare his team for especially as there was an absence of fans in the stadium. The players had to cut short celebrations and play a game. In such circumstances, a 1-1 draw probably suited both parties. China will be happy to avoid defeat against the long-time group leaders and Saudi Arabia will not have wanted to lose against the struggling team.

Yet clinching a place at the World Cup when you still have two games left to play is something to be proud of. There were no late nerves or pressure, it was all so easy in the end.

2. Fighting point in Australia showed the spirit

There were some famous wins on the road to Qatar but it was a 0-0 draw in Sydney last November that really showed that there is a new-found steel in the side. Saudi Arabia had won the first four games in the group before the trip down under while Australia had just lost in Japan and were desperate to get the three points. Most people there assumed they would get them — the Saudis have often struggled against the physicality of the Socceroos in the past.

Yet the visitors produced a battling performance on a wet night to take a point back home. Australia threw everything they had but such was the quality of the defending that the home team were reduced to punting long and hopeful balls forward. As time passed, Saudi Arabia, missing a number of players, started to create chances and by the end looked likelier to score.

It was a message to the rest of the group and to the fans at home – Saudi Arabia could go anywhere in Asia and get a result. It also maintained the lead over Australia and that lead was to prove crucial.

3. The strikers repeatedly rose to the occasion

Everyone knows, and this writer has mentioned on more than one occasion, that there is a lack of strikers in Saudi Arabia. Each club team is able to import top-class attacking talent from around the world and that does not give the locals too many chances — or the national team coach too many options.

Yet Renard has put his faith in Saleh Al-Shehri and Firas Al-Buraikan as the men to lead the line and they have more than repaid the trust shown. Together they have scored seven of the 11 Saudi goals in the group stage. The likes of Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj often get the headlines, and rightly so, but against China it was Al-Shehri who got the goal. In the crucial home win over Japan, it was his younger compatriot who did the job. Both have earned a ticket to Qatar and it will be fascinating to see how they perform.

4. China away was forgettable, at home it was thrilling

While the point in Australia showed that Saudi Arabia could battle for results, the highlight of the group stage is unmistakable. There had been three wins out of three when China arrived in Jeddah and there was excitement at the prospect of victory number four.

What really impressed, however, was the 55,000 fans in Jeddah who contributed to an unforgettable evening, one that showed what we had missed during the pandemic. It produced the kind of shared experience that all teams need, inspiring the action on the pitch and then feeding off it.

Two goals from the unlikely source of Sami Al-Najei seemed to have the points in the bag but a beauty from China changed things soon after the break. Al-Buraikan restored the two goal advantage but with 20 minutes remaining, goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Owais went off injured, his replacement Fawaz Al-Qarni made an immediate mistake and it was 3-2. There were some serious nerves, not helped by 10 minutes of added time, but Saudi Arabia hung on for a crucial, dramatic and exhilarating win.

5. The team has improved over the months

Apart from the defeat in Japan, partly down to a rare misstep from coach Herve Renard whose tactical changes seemed to confuse rather than inspire his players, the impressive part about the team is that it has improved over the months. The longer the Frenchman has spent with his players, the better it has been.

After he took over in 2019, it took time for the effects to show and pandemic disruption obviously did not help. But while performances in the previous rounds were patchy, in the final group stage and against better teams, Saudi Arabia have risen to the occasion. When the pressure has been on, they have performed.

Impressively, when players have been absent, the replacements have come in, done the job and ensured that the level of performances remain the same.
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