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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Positives for Saudi Arabia and Juan Antonio Pizzi in World Cup preparations despite heavy Belgium reversal

Training camp labelled a success as focus builds towards summer action in Russia

Saudi Arabia's Fahad Al Muwallad, left, challenges Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen during Tuesday's friendly. Olivier Hoslet / EPA
Saudi Arabia's Fahad Al Muwallad, left, challenges Belgium's Thomas Vermaelen during Tuesday's friendly. Olivier Hoslet / EPA

With a squad containing more household names than a Panini sticker album, Belgium were always going to triumph on Tuesday night against Saudi Arabia.

Yet while Roberto Martinez’s side rightfully claimed the plaudits with a comfortable 4-0 victory, it is the beleaguered Gulf nation who should reap the long-term benefits.

A first-half double from Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku and second-half goals from Borussia Dortmund’s Michy Batshuayi and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne ensured Belgium remain unbeaten in 16 games.

The record of Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, in contrast, reads: played four, won one. However, for all their struggles to contain Belgium, the green shoots of a growing philosophy shone through.

Since taking the reins in late November, Pizzi has focused on instilling confidence in his team. Lining up matches against the likes of Belgium, Peru, Italy and Germany may seem counter-intuitive in that regard.

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But the experience they will gain from playing against some of the best teams in the world will prove perfect preparation for June 14 when they face a Russia side fuelled by pride and patriotism rather than any particular brilliance.

It was a point Pizzi was keen to stress post-match in Brussels.

“We are preparing for a World Cup and this game was, you could say given the quality of the opposition, a kind of World Cup game,” the Argentine said. “Belgium are with players who are in the best leagues in the world, so it has been a good experience.

"In these camps we are making —from the friendly that we played last week to the games we will add in May and June - we will be able to reach the World Cup in the best possible condition.”

Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP Photo
Saudi Arabia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP Photo

The learning curve may be a tall one, but improvement is already evident. Despite coming up against Premier League stalwarts and Primera Liga luminaries, the Saudi players stuck to Pizzi’s principles, trying to play the ball calmly out of defence, press Belgium in midfield, and attack in numbers.

Pizzi announced himself satisfied with his players’ performance, but he will be aware that such a strategy badly deployed can quickly turn a tight game into a rout.

On Tuesday, errors in dangerous positions led to numerous chances, including the opening goal. Hassan Fallatah’s misplaced pass was collected by De Bruyne, who fed Romelu Lukaku to open the scoring.

Midfielder Abdullah Otayf is nicknamed the ‘Saudi Modric’ by teammates, but made a similar mistake and was fortunate to see Dries Mertens fire off-target.

Yet both players can only benefit from coming up against adversaries so ready to punish them.

“It’s true that when we have the ball we are much more comfortable than before, but we are trying to work on many aspects [and] of course we have many things to improve,” Pizzi said.

“We have to work hard and learn what it is like to play in international matches of this calibre, but these games help.”

The next time the team convenes will be in Spain in May for matches against Algeria and Greece, both of who have failed to qualify for this summer’s showpiece.

Yet with lower quality opposition, comes higher expectations. For Saudi, it will be the time to show the lessons from their Belgium battering have been committed to memory.