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World Cup preview: Saudi Arabia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole looks at Saudi Arabia's chances having been drawn alongside the hosts in Group A.

Saudi Arabia will be returning to the World Cup after a 12-year absence this summer, with Russia 2018 representing their first appearance in the competition since 2006.

Once a regular fixture in the tournament - the Saudis reached four successive World Cups from 1994 to 2006 - the current crop will be looking to emulate the likes of Sami Al-Jaber, Saeed Al-Owairan and Mohamed Al-Deayea in writing their name into Saudi footballing folklore.

The Saudi Arabian team lines up ahead of an international friendly in March 2018© Reuters

Not much will be expected of Juan Antonio Pizzi's side in Russia, but they will be looking to upset the odds and at least make it into the knockout stages for only the second time.

Here, Sports Mole previews Saudi Arabia's World Cup hopes.


Saudi Arabia's hopes of making it beyond the group stages will not have been dampened too much by the draw, although they will go into the tournament as favourites to finish at the bottom of their pile.

World Cup Group A

In purely footballing terms, Saudi showed enough in qualifying to suggest that they will be able to hold their own against Egypt and Russia at least, with Uruguay expected to finish top of the group.

However, Egypt have one of the 2017-18 season's star players in the shape of Mohamed Salah, while Russia of course have the home advantage, so defeat in their opener against the hosts could spell an early doom for the Saudis.


June 14: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia (4pm, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow)
June 20: Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia (4pm, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don)
June 25: Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt (3pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd)


Saudi Arabia qualified automatically for this summer's World Cup by finishing second in Group B of the AFC section, notably coming ahead of Australia on goal difference.

The Saudis won six of their 10 qualifying matches, including a crucial one over the already-qualified Japan on the final day to keep them above Australia in second place - eventually just one point behind Japan.

Saudi Arabia's players celebrate their qualification for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

The Falcons were beaten by Japan, Australia and UAE during the third round of qualifying, but ended the campaign as the joint-highest scorers throughout.

Defeats to Australia and UAE in their two matches preceding that vital final game against Japan threatened to derail their qualification bid, but they eventually held their nerve to book a place on the plane to Russia without the need for a playoff.


Saudi Arabia have been one of the busier nations in the build-up to this summer's tournament, playing five matches since the beginning of May.

The warm-up campaign got off to a good start too, with back-to-back 2-0 wins over Algeria and Greece, but they have since lost three matches in a row to take them into the World Cup on their worst run of form since January 2015.

Saudi Arabia's Taiseer Al Jassam celebrates scoring their first goal with Yasser Al-Shahrani during the international friendly with Germany on June 8, 2018© Reuters

The most recent of those defeats came at the hands of defending world champions Germany, although they may not have been too disheartened to lose 2-1 to the world's number-one ranked team in Leverkusen.

Italy also ran out 2-1 winners last month, but the most concerning of Saudi Arabia's recent results will have been their 3-0 defeat to Peru in Switzerland on June 3.

Since qualifying for Russia 2018, Saudi Arabia have won just four of their 14 outings, losing eight of those including defeats to the likes of Oman, Iraq and Bulgaria.


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), Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad).

Forwards: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli).

STAR PLAYER - Osama Hawsawi

Saudi Arabia's Osama Hawsawi talks to referee Sebastian Coltescu during his side's international friendly with Portugal in November 2017© Reuters

The Green Falcons tend to sit back and soak up pressure against the bigger sides, which may well be the tactic they deploy when attempting to thwart the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani against Uruguay, and Salah - fitness dependent - against Egypt.

A lot is therefore expected of centre-back Osama Hawsawi, who is fast closing in on 140 caps for the national side - experience is certainly not lacking for the 34-year-old.

Hawsawi is very much a leader from the back, able to command those around him as the Saudis attempt to grind out goalless draws and low-scoring wins to spring a major surprise.

While others may attract more pre-tournament attention, such as Mohammad Al-Sahlawi - joint-top scorer in qualifying with 16 goals - the Saudis will only stand a chance of qualifying if they can keep opposition attackers quiet.

In home-based defender Hasawi, they have a cool head for the biggest of occasions.

MANAGER - Juan Antonio Pizzi

Saudi Arabia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi on May 28, 2018© Reuters

Pizzi will no doubt have felt that his chances of managing in this summer's World Cup were over when his Chile side slumped from third to sixth on the final day of South American qualifying, resulting in his resignation from the job.

However, the Argentina-born boss was subsequently handed the reins of Saudi Arabia as recently as November, remarkably becoming the third manager to take charge of the national team in as many months.

Pizzi's managerial credentials were significantly boosted during his time in charge of Chile, where he led the team to glory in the centenary Copa America in 2016 and to the Confederations Cup final just last year.

Prior to that the 49-year-old was at Valencia, where he lasted less than seven months before becoming a casualty of new owners at the club - albeit admittedly at the end of a disappointing season.

Pizzi was a player of some regard too, turning out 22 times for Spain despite his Argentine roots and helping Barcelona to six trophies during a two-year stay at the club - including the 1997-98 La Liga title.


Best finish: Last 16 (1994)

Saudi Arabia celebrate victory over Belgium at the 1994 World Cup© Reuters

Saudi Arabia's previous visits to the World Cup have not exactly been happy affairs. The Falcons may have reached four in a row either side of the turn of the century, but their performance in their first ever campaign remains comfortably their best.

Victories over Morocco and Belgium - the latter of which was a shock sprung by Al-Owairian's unforgettable solo effort to score the only goal of the game - saw them progress from Group F to set up a meeting with Sweden in the last 16, where their World Cup journey ended.

That famous win over Belgium remains their last triumph on the World Cup stage. In the three tournaments they have reached since, Saudi Arabia have drawn two and lost seven of their nine group games, finishing bottom of the pile each time.

The nadir came in 2002 when Saudi Arabia fell to one of the heaviest World Cup defeats of all time in the opening game, losing 8-0 to Germany. Defeats against Cameroon and Republic of Ireland followed, leaving the Saudis winless and goalless from their three group games.


It would be a major surprise if Saudi Arabia managed to reach the knockout rounds in Russia, and even a point may be seen as a decent enough return against Uruguay, Egypt and hosts Russia.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group A

World Cup previews - Click here for more stories

How far will Saudi Arabia go at this summer's World Cup?

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