Saudi Arabia manager Herve Renard has paid tribute to his side for sealing World Cup qualification.
The Gulf nation secured their place on Thursday at Qatar 2022 before kicking off their penultimate Group B match with China in Sharjah, courtesy of Japan’s 2-0 win against Australia earlier in the day.
The victory in Sydney meant both Japan and Saudi Arabia qualify automatically for the World Cup later this year, while third-placed Australia have to settle for a play-off spot.
The Saudis, who eventually drew 1-1 with China at Sharjah Stadium, will participate at successive World Cups for the first time since 2006, and appear at their sixth global finals. Now second in the group, one point behind Japan, they conclude their final-round campaign against Australia in Jeddah on Tuesday.
“First of all, congratulations to everyone from Saudi for qualification,” Renard said following the China draw. “Two games before the end, we are already qualified - and that’s a very good thing.
“Of course, we also wanted to win this game and we had so many chances, but we didn’t score the second goal. The players achieved 20 points until now. We still have one game at home to score three more points in front of our fans.”
In a match played behind closed doors, Saudi Arabia took a deserved lead against China in first-half injury-time through striker Saleh Al Shehri’s brilliantly improvised header from a Salman Al Faraj corner.
However, Renard’s men were made to pay for spurning several excellent chances to double their advantage, with opposition defender Zhu Chenjie equalising from the spot eight minutes from time after Abdulelah Al Amri had handled inside the Saudi penalty area.
Renard, who guided Morocco to the 2018 World Cup, rejected suggestions that the confirmation of qualification had led to complacency among his players on Thursday.
“I don’t think we were relaxed,” the Frenchman said. “We had so many chances in the second half also. In football it’s very important to be efficient. I don’t think they had any shots on goal, but we conceded a handball.
"This is a part of football; maybe we were not fully concentrated in defence. I don’t want to blame the players because they gave me a lot and I want to thank them for it.
“We are playing in a stadium with no fans and had already qualified. It’s so difficult. Of course, we are doing our job, but at times it felt like a friendly game. It could be the reason. Can you imagine just if the fans were there? The atmosphere would be fantastic, but it wasn’t the case.
“We did 16 games of qualifiers before this game. It was difficult, so they did a lot of effort to be in first position and qualify with two games to spare and that’s what we have done.
“Saudi Arabia will be at the [World Cup] draw on April 1 and that is the most important. With already 20 points. In 2018, we ended with 19 points at the end, and we can still get more.”