Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Saudi Arabia lay down marker at Asian Cup with crushing win over North Korea

Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men prove too strong in 4-0 victory as they begin their bid to lift continental title after 23 years in style

Contesting a second Asian Cup on UAE soil, Saudi Arabia are seeking a similar success. They got off to a convincing start yesterday.

The 1996 champions, the fourth-ranked team on the continent, brushed aside North Korea at a partisan Rashid Stadium in Dubai, triumphing 4-0. At the same time, they sent out a statement of intent to their rivals this month.

Admittedly, North Korea provided little resistance, outplayed and out-thought by Juan Antonio Pizzi’s increasingly slick side. Hope of a positive result long gone, they played the entire second half with 10 men.

Still considered Asian heavyweights, Saudi Arabia’s title win in the UAE 23 years ago was their third Asian crown. Much to their chagrin, it remains their most recent.

However, against a needling North Korea in their Group E opener, they dominated and drove to a comfortable three points. Abdullah Al Otayf betrayed the Rolls Royce midfielder he can do, when the circumstances conspire in his favour.

Salem Al Dawsari, celebrated for scoring the winner this summer in the World Cup clash with Egypt, floated into dangerous areas and cajoled teammates, in his recent role as captain. He capped his evening with a goal.

When needed, keeper Mohammed Al Owais was impervious. Elsewhere, relative newbie Abdulaziz Albishi impressed in the middle.

Saudi’s opener caught the attention, too. They had already gone close before Hatan Bahbri collected the ball on the left in the 28th minute, shimmied past his marker and curled an unstoppable effort beyond Ri Myong-guk in the North Korea goal.

Then, in a two-minute spell, North Korea’s chances disappeared into the Dubai night. First, Han Kwang-song headed woefully off target when unmarked inside the six-yard box. Almost in a flash, at the other end, defender Mohammed Al Fatil applied a cute flick to Mohammed Al Burayk’s whipped free-kick to double Saudi Arabia’s advantage.

One minute before half time, and with head presumably still spinning, Italian-based Han grew frustrated at the Saudis neat interplay. He chopped at the back of Hussein Al Moqahwi. Already on a yellow, Han saw red.

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Under Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia made a positive start to their Asian Cup campaign. Suhaib Salem / Reuters
Under Juan Antonio Pizzi, Saudi Arabia made a positive start to their Asian Cup campaign. Suhaib Salem / Reuters

From there, it felt like damage limitation. Fawad Al Muwallad, leading the Saudi Arabia line alone, somehow curled well wide with the goal at his mercy. The forward had earlier missed another presentable chance, firing straight at Ri. Later, though, he nearly scored with a chipped cross-cum-shot.

By that time, his side were 3-0 up. On 69 minutes, after Al Owais had saved well from Ri Yong-jik’s thumping volley, Al Dawsari grabbed his goal. Creating space expertly in the opposition penalty area, he side-footed casually home.

With three minutes remaining, Al Muwallad got in on the act – finally. The North Korea defence failed to react properly to substitute Hamdan Al Shamrani’s clipped cross, leaving Al Muwallad to control the ball and thrash it into the net.

Saudi Arabia had eased to an opening victory, the one blight on their copybook Yasser Al Shahrani’s late withdrawal through injury. However, irrespective of that, and despite North Korea’s flimsy resilience, Pizzi’s men had laid down a marker.

Back for a second Asian Cup in the UAE, the 1996 champions’ campaign to match that 23-year-old feat has begun well.

Updated: January 8, 2019 11:13 PM

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