With less than a month to go until the Saudi Arabian national anthem rings around the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the country’s fight to be ready for the opening game of the Fifa World Cup on June 14 is progressing at pace.
On Tuesday, at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the Green Falcons’ penultimate training camp will be concluded with a friendly against Greece.
Juan Antonio Pizzi was installed as Saudi manager late last year and has spent much of the past two months at the Marbella Football Center, drilling his squad amid the orange trees and tall palms.
The Argentine is a disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa school of tactics and insists on high-energy performances, full of pressing and swarming and attacking in numbers. In his previous role with the Chile national team, it worked to great effect as he won the 2016 Copa America.
With Saudi, after five friendlies, he is slowly starting to see results in performance if not always in scoreline. A debut 3-0 victory over minnows Moldova in February was followed up by an experimental 4-1 loss to Iraq, before an impressive 1-1 draw with Ukraine and a 4-0 defeat to Belgium.
Against an understrength Algeria last Wednesday, Pizzi’s side comfortably ran out 2-0 winners, although he was left frustrated by his side’s lack of efficiency in front of goal.
His side next face a nation ranked 44th in the world, 26 places above them in Fifa's rankings. The opportunity to gauge the Gulf nation’s true level, however, will not be so straight-forward. Greece missed out on a place in Russia only after losing a European play-off with Croatia, but with this evening’s match not an official international date on Fifa’s calendar, manager Michael Skibbe has been forced to select a predominantly home-based squad.
That means the Mediterraneans will be without the likes of Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Stoke City’s Kostas Stafylidisup, although Skibbe has been able to call upon veteran Alexandros Tziolis, who plays his domestic football for Saudi side Al Fayha. The Saudi league concluded earlier than usual this year at the request of the country’s football federation.
“There is no doubt the game against Greece will be a step up in difficulty and they will be tougher than Algeria,” Yasser Al Mosailem, the Al Ahli Jeddah goalkeeper, told reporters. “For sure, we will try to play a little different because the first half against Algeria was not at the level we wanted. We know what we must improve though, so we only need to follow the instructions of the coach and work to achieve a better result.”
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The match against Algeria was the team’s first friendly in more than a month. While the Saudi defence’s predisposition to invite pressure had been obvious against the likes of Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, against the Africans, save from an early lapse in concentration by Saeed Al Mowallad, the Green Falcons backline looked better drilled.
The problems remain, however, in attack. They have managed just seven goals in five games and Mohammed Al Sahlawi is the only striker Pizzi appears to trust. Yet the Al Nassr forward, who trained with Manchester United for a few days earlier this month as part of a corporate sponsor tie-up, has not scored an international goal since June last year. Pizzi has tried various alternatives without success, affording himself one final roll of the dice by calling up Haroune Kamara, a little-known 20 year old.
Kamara broke into the Al Qadisyah first team last season and went on to make seven appearances, scoring four times. Born in Saudi to Guinean parents, he has trained well for the past week and, having failed to come off the bench against Algeria, can be expected to be given some minutes in Seville.
Of the three national team players sent to Spain in January as part of a deal with La Liga, only Fahad Al Muwallad has featured for his new club. Leganes’ Yahya Al Shehri, who came on against Algeria and scored his team’s second goal, and Villarreal’s Salem Al Dawsari are both available once more.
“We had several difficult moments against Algeria, but I was happy to show what I can do and to score a goal too was great,” Al Shehri said. “To be honest, against Algeria we did not meet our own expectations and we should have done better. It is our intention to make up for this in this next game against Greece. We are ready.”