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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Missed chances and slow starts: Assessing the Arab sides at World Cup 2018

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia are all out of the World Cup after the group stages. John McAuley assesses where it went wrong for each side as well as the reasons for optimism in some cases

Saudi Arabia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, centre, extended his contract to take charge of the 2019 Asian Cup. EPA
Saudi Arabia manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, centre, extended his contract to take charge of the 2019 Asian Cup. EPA

The group stage has finished and so have Arab countries’ hopes for another World Cup, despite a record four teams competing this month.

Saudi Arabia were third in Group A with Egypt bottom. Morocco were bottom of Group B with just one point to their name, while Tunisia were third in Group G.

John McAuley assesses their performance in Russia and assesses where it went wrong for each side, and also where the plus points were.

Saudi Arabia

Humbled 5-0 in the tournament opener by hosts Russia, they did well to recover enough to perform adequately in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay before concluding with a 2-1 victory against Egypt.

As was expected, Saudi’s lack of a cutting edge cost them, although their tactics and defensive naivety were brutally exposed by Russia. The occasion – they were the first Asian side to contest the curtain-raiser – also played its part.

In all three matches, Saudi enjoyed the majority of possession, but they needed to utilise better the ball. Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has agreed a contract extension through to next January’s Asian Cup in the UAE. Now he must make a decent side a potent one.

Highlight: Undoubtedly Salem Al Dawsari’s injury-time winner against Egypt, securing a first World Cup triumph in 24 years.

Lowlight: The opening-day drubbing. Saudi were disorganised and by the end dishevelled, and did not register a single shot on target.

Saudi Arabia enjoyed some cheer at the World Cup thanks to their last-gasp win over Egypt. Zurab Kurtsikidze / EPA
Saudi Arabia enjoyed some cheer at the World Cup thanks to their last-gasp win over Egypt. Zurab Kurtsikidze / EPA

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Morocco

Drawn in arguably the most difficult group, they were undeniably the best-performing Arab team in the tournament. Unfortunately, the results did not reflect that.

Morocco’s hopes of qualification suffered a significant blow in their opening match against Iran, when they conceded in injury-time to lose 1-0. They had been wasted numerous opportunities. Likewise, in their next match, when they outplayed European champions Portugal but never cancelled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s fourth-minute opener. Captain Medhi Benatia spurned several chances.

Still, in the Group B finale against Spain, Morocco played brilliantly, twice taking the lead but were pegged back by Iago Aspas’ injury-time equaliser to draw 2-2.

They left with reputation enhanced. Morocco, coached superbly by the impressive Herve Renard, deserved more.

Highlight: Their general play. Morocco were intricate and inventive, if guilty of not capitalising. Mbark Boussoufa, the former Al Jazira midfielder, was key.

Lowlight: Perceived poor officiating. In all, Morocco felt eight refereeing errors proved costly – their federation have even complained to Fifa.

Former Al Jazira midfielder Mbark Boussoufa impressed for Morocco. Martin Divisek / EPA
Former Al Jazira midfielder Mbark Boussoufa impressed for Morocco. Martin Divisek / EPA

Tunisia

A tough tournament to weigh up. Tunisia were dogged in their opening match against England, surviving an early onslaught to nearly steal a point. But Harry Kane scored in injury-time to snatch a 2-1 victory.

Tunisia were then dismantled by Belgium, conceding a fourth-minute penalty and conceding four more goals to eventually lose 5-2.

They concluded their campaign with a morale-boosting 2-1 victory against a woeful Panama. What’s more, they came from a goal down to prosper, proving better physically than their opponents in the second half.

It halted a run of 13 matches without a win at the World Cup.

Third place was always the best they could have hoped for. Tenacious, at times overly so, but as manager Nabil Maaloul stated, not with the talent to match.

Highlight: Victory against Panama, Tunisia’s first at a World Cup in 40 years. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef also made history: he scored the 2,500th goal in tournament history.

Lowlight: Kane’s last-gasp header in Volgograd. Tunisia looked set for a point, but lost it and then went at Belgium with an abandon they would ultimately regret.

Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef scored against Panama. Murad Sezer / Reuters
Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef scored against Panama. Murad Sezer / Reuters

Egypt

A hugely disappointing return in Russia. They had genuine hopes of advancing from a relatively straightforward Group A, but suffered from Mohamed Salah’s injury and subsequent late participation, the Chechnya controversy, rumours of infighting and Hector Cuper’s ultra-defensive approach.

Egypt were perhaps unfortunate to lose their opener to Uruguay, conceding a last-minute header to sink to a 1-0 defeat. However, they were lacklustre against Russia, losing their heads and three goals in 12 second-half minutes to go down 3-1.

Already eliminated, they then lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia. Their search for a first World Cup rumbles on. And so a first World Cup in 28 years proved a disappointment.

Hence, Cuper’s contract extension never materialised, the obdurate Argentine already gone. A deeply unsatisfactory few weeks.

Highlight: Essam El Hadary. At 45 and 161 days, the goalkeeper and captain became the oldest player to contest a World Cup match. Marked the occasion by saving a Saudi Arabia penalty.

Lowlight: The Salah circus. Understandably, it hung over the squad throughout, from the injury to his interaction with Ramzan Kadyrov. Despite two goals, we never got to see peak Salah – a great shame.

It was a disappointing tournament for Egypt and Mohamed Salah as they finished pointless. Darren Staples / Reuters 
It was a disappointing tournament for Egypt and Mohamed Salah as they finished pointless. Darren Staples / Reuters