Saudi Arabia display ability and discipline to keep control of their own fate

'Proud' Herve Renard's headline-makers were edged out by Poland but can still qualify with the right result against Mexico

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Herve Renard referenced the reaction, and he was right.

After Argentina and all that came with it, Saudi Arabia had not allowed the sudden stardom to go to their heads.

In the space of five days, they had emerged as one of the footballing stories of this Fifa World Cup, sealed by a for-the-ages victory against a tournament favourite on Group C Day 1. There were videos and memes and even more videos and headlines around the world.

The 2-1 win in the opener against Argentina inspired a national holiday in their homeland. Reports, apparently playing to lazy stereotype, claimed the victorious players at Lusail Stadium had been awarded luxury cars for their efforts. That speculation was swiftly dismissed by Saleh Al Shehri, scorer of the equaliser against the Copa America champions.

So what would the response to Argentina be? How would Saudi approach Match 2 against Poland on Saturday, with the world watching, with expectations back home swelling immeasurably? With victory guaranteeing a place in the knockouts for only the second time in the country’s history?

Sami Al Jaber, the Saudi great who knows a thing or two about remarkable World Cup wins – the striker was part of the 1994 team who defeated Morocco and Denmark to progress – told The National hours before Poland that mentality would prove decisive.

Saudi had shown against Argentina they had the technical ability, the fortitude as well, but had they stayed focused?

Especially, since they would be without old-hand captain Salman Al Faraj and the experienced Yasser Al Shahrani, both struck down by injury.

Then, on Saturday at an Education City Stadium bathed in green, Saudi played a mammoth match, doing everything other than the most important thing in football: score.

They outplayed and outfought their European opponents for the majority, Mohammed Kano imperious – again – in midfield, Saud Abdulhamid brilliant at right-back and then on the left – remarkable in itself – and Salem Al Dawsari taking the lead with the armband in Al Faraj’s absence.

But, ultimately, it was not enough. Al Dawsari’s penalty was saved, Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny inspired, and Saudi’s Achilles heel came back to bite them. They squandered numerous opportunities, never truly taking advantage of their superiority. They lost 2-0.

If only they had the one-man attacking talent of Robert Lewandowski (admittedly, not many do). After striking the woodwork – the second of two such instances by Poland – the Barcelona forward made safe the result. And it was there for all to see: Saudi missed a master marksman, as they so often do.

Thus, they stay on three points, from two matches, but would have surely taken that at the outset. Their fate remains in their hands. Defeat Mexico in the decider on Wednesday – no easy task, granted – and Saudi are through.

For sure, there is reason for optimism, to be proud, irrespective of Poland. Saudi were once more brave and bright, displaying a confidence that matched their conviction. Poland are ranked at No 26 by Fifa, Saudi No 51.

Most importantly, after Argentina, the attitude was correct. Needed to sustain, that should serve them well on Wednesday.

“The reaction was a very good reaction,” a “proud” Renard said post-Poland. “I don’t think a lot of people thought Saudi Arabia were able to play this kind of football.

“We will play the third game with the same energy. We are still alive.”

Updated: November 27, 2022, 2:05 PM