Juan Antonio Pizzi will lead the Green Falcons into its opening match in Group A of the 2018 tournament but he is removed by some distance from the coaching team that earned Saudi Arabia its spot at the finals.
It was Dutchman Bert van Marwijk who managed to build a side that was much stronger than the sum of its parts and ended a decade of disappointment for Saudi Arabia to return the team to the upper levels of the Asian game.
Habitual hirers and firers of coaches, Saudi Arabia will be appearing at the finals for the fifth time, with its best performance coming on its debut in 1994 when it reached the last 16. Since it last appeared at the World Cup finals, though, Saudi Arabia has lost its place among the leading lights of the continent, exiting the Asian Cup in the group phase in both 2011 and 2015 and missing out on the last two World Cups.
Van Marwijk, however, harnessed the talent that had seen club sides such as Al Hilal and Al Ahli impress in Asian competition and fashioned a team capable of finally returning to the World Cup. The departure of the Dutchman at the end of his two-year contract in September 2017 saw Edgardo Bauza take over for a short-lived, three-game spell before Argentina born former Spain international Pizzi was put in place in late November.
With little more than six months to work with the team, the former Chile coach has been set a tough task — one made more demanding by a decision to send several key players on loan to Spanish clubs in the lead-up to the finals. Yahya Al Shehri, Fahad Al Muwallad and Salem Al Dawsari were among a group of players who were farmed out to La Liga sides in January, only to spend almost all of their loan periods on the sidelines. A lack of match sharpness for the team’s most potent attacking trio could have a detrimental effect on a side already lacking experience of the biggest occasions, and few come bigger than its opener against hosts Russia in Moscow on June 14.
Al Shehri not short of creative spark
What Yahya Al Shehri lacks in stature he more than makes up for in influence in the Saudi Arabia side that is heading to the World Cup finals in Russia.
Standing at just 1.6 metres tall, the versatile attacker plays a major role in the creation and scoring of opportunities for Saudi Arabia and he was a central figure in the country’s qualification for the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Although capable of playing on the wing, Al Shehri is most effective when given licence to roam behind lone striker Mohammed Al Sahlawi.
He can often be seen dropping deep to collect the ball from defensive midfielder Abdullah Otayf or the centre backs in an attempt to start Saudi Arabia’s attacking moves. The 27-year old is currently on the books of Riyadh’s Al Nassr, who signed him from Al Ettifaq in 2013 for a Saudi-record 48 million riyals ($12.80 million).
PREVIOUS TOURNAMENTS: Saudi Arabia is appearing at its first World Cup finals since 2006, when it exited at the end of the group phase of the competition for the third tournament in a row. The country’s high point remains its debut qualification for the World Cup, when it reached the round of 16 in the United States in 1994 after a memorable 1-0 win over Belgium, courtesy of Saeed Al Owairan’s slaloming wonder goal.
PROSPECTS: The coaching changes since qualification was confirmed mean Saudi Arabia’s preparations have been disjointed while a decision to send a number of key players to Spanish clubs in a bid to give them more experience has backfired. The opening game against Russia will be vital as it seeks to set a positive tone for the rest of its campaign, while the meeting with Egypt will be among the most keenly followed matches in the Middle East.
FORM GUIDE: Saudi Arabia’s results since securing qualification for the finals have been disappointing, with the country knocked out of the keenly contested Gulf Cup at the end of the group phase in December. More work still needs to be done by it.
FIFA ranking: 67