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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Returns of Guerrero and Al Abed boost both Peru and Saudi Arabia ahead of World Cup

The two sides meet in friendly on Sunday with all eyes on their respective preparations for Russia

Paolo Guerrero is enjoying life back in the Peru camp. Daniel Kopatsch / EPA
Paolo Guerrero is enjoying life back in the Peru camp. Daniel Kopatsch / EPA

If standing at six-foot-plus does not catch the eye, being a prolific striker for club and country surely helps.

Peruvian captain Paolo Guerrero is no stranger to the limelight, yet more than ever before, the focus will be firmly on him when his country face Saudi Arabia on Sunday in the two sides’ penultimate warm-up match before the World Cup starts on June 14.

Guerrero, Peru’s all-time leading goalscorer, is expected to make his long-awaited return this evening after a controversial seven-month absence.

The 34-year-old has not played for his country since last October when he tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine.

Despite the widely accepted explanation it was mistakenly ingested through a cup of coca-leaf tea, he was handed a 14-month doping ban that looked set to rule him out of his country’s first World Cup appearance since 1982.

The ruling sparked manifestations on the streets of Lima while Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra tried to escalate the case.

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On Thursday, a decision by the Swiss supreme court granted an interim order to delay the ban until after this summer’s tournament while the player’s appeal is pending. “Paolo Guerrero can take part in the World Cup,” the court said, clearing the way for his return.

Images of the Peruvian reuniting with his teammates at their training base in Austria were broadcast around the world. "We always had the faith and hope that Paolo can play the World Cup, he deserves to be with us," defender Aldo Corzo told reporters.

While the Flamengo striker is expected to feature against Saudi Arabia at the Kybunpark in St Gallen, he is not the only key player set to make a long-awaited return.

Saudi Arabia's Nawaf Al Abed. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Nawaf Al Abed. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

Nawaf Al Abed, the Saudi playmaker, may not be as instantly recognisable as the strapping Guerrero, yet he was just as influential for his country during World Cup qualifying, scoring five goals in the final group phase.

Al Abed has been out injured since undergoing surgery on a groin issue in January and has yet to play under Juan Antonio Pizzi.

He has trained with the squad for the past six weeks, however, and was on the bench for last week’s 2-1 defeat to Italy.

The Argentine coach must cut five players from his 28-man selection before Monday so the Hilal schemer, at 28, is aware it could be now or never for a chance to shine on the world stage. He must prove his fitness immediately.

Recognised as one of the most creative players in Asia, leaving Al Abed at home would be an incendiary decision, but there is no space for passengers on the Saudi plane.

Given his team’s struggles in the creative department, Pizzi would be loathe to be without a quick-thinking attacker who has shown a knack for unlocking defences, but he also said last month he knew “practically all” of his final 23-man squad and spoke more recently of the necessity of having every player ready to be called upon.

“We have tried over the past four to five months to work the players very hard to help reach the highest possible level of competitiveness,” Pizzi told The National. “I am very confident the 23 players I select will be in the best shape to compete at the World Cup.”

Recent friendlies against an experimental Algeria, a depleted Greece and an out-of-season Italy side yielded reasonable results and periods of high performance, but gauging the squad’s readiness for a World Cup has proved difficult.

Against a Peru team ranked 11th in the world, unbeaten in 13 games and buoyed by the return of their influential captain, this will undoubtedly be the Green Falcons’ toughest test yet.

The game kicks off at 10pm UAE time