Roberto Mancini turns to fresh faces as Saudi Arabia step up Asian Cup preparations

Italian coach sees team take on Nigeria and Mali in friendly matches

Roberto Mancini oversaw a pair of defeats in his first matches as Saudi Arabia head coach. Getty
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With the summer of unprecedented spending out of the way and the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League season in full flow, Saudi Arabia was back in global headlines again over the past few days.

Fifa, football's world governing body, have awarded the 2030 World Cup to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, with games also taking place in the South American countries of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay to mark the tournament’s centenary year.

The decision, coupled with confirmation that the following tournament in 2034 is set to take place in either Asia or Oceania, brought the kingdom a step closer to fulfilling its dream of following on the footsteps of Qatar and hosting football’s premier international football competition.

The Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) claims it has the backing of over 70 countries, and also has the backing of the Asian Football Confederation.

Several thousand miles away in the Portuguese coastal city of Portimao, far from all the drama and media spotlight, Roberto Mancini’s 31-man squad continue their preparation for the upcoming Asian Cup with a training camp and two friendly matches against Nigeria and Mali.

While this will be Mancini’s third match in charge of the team since his appointment eight weeks ago, it will, essentially, be the first time he is taking with him a squad of his own selection, having followed Saudi Pro League matches over the past few rounds.

September's internationals came only a few days after the Italian's appointment, and he oversaw a squad largely based on the last one inherited from his predecessor Herve Renard. Mancini lost both matches; to Costa Rica 3-1 then to South Korea 1-0.

Ahead of the Nigeria match on Friday, Mancini will be looking to answer some pressing questions in terms of team selections, with only one more international window left before the Green Falcons take on Oman, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan in Group F of the Asian Cup in January.

In goal, Al Nassr's 23-year-old keeper Nawaf Al Aqidi has emerged as one of the Saudi Pro League's rising stars, establishing himself as the only home-grown goalkeeper starting week-in, week-out.

Despite some mixed performances, Al Aqidi remains Mancini's first choice. His main competition comes from veteran Mohammed Al Owais, who started all of Saudi Arabia’s games at the 2022 World Cup. The 32-year-old has not started a league game for his club side Al Hilal since the arrival of Moroccan international Yassine 'Bono' Bounou but remains highly rated.

The exceptional defensive record of Al Ittihad – six clean sheets in their nine league outings so far – saw defenders Hassan Kadesh and Zakaria Hawsawi rewarded by Mancini with call-ups.

The latter, just 22, can establish himself as long-term replacement for 31-year-old Yasser Al Shahrani who had been occupying the left-back spot for nearly a decade without much competition.

Al Hilal midfielder Abdulelah Al Malki, 29, was a surprise inclusion in the squad, having not played first-team football since suffering an injury during the World Cup nearly a year ago.

He is likely to serve as a role model for younger players such as Ali Hazazi who has impressed at Al Ettifaq under Steven Gerrard, complementing the qualities of Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum in a midfield three.

Another youngster, Eid Al Muwallad, created history by becoming the first player from Al Okhdood to be called up for the national team.

Al Muwallad, 22, is a combative and tenacious operator, who has excelled in breaking up opposition attacks as his club side navigated their first few weeks in their first season playing in the Saudi top flight.

Faisal Al Ghamdi, one of the most exciting young midfielders in Saudi Arabia, receives his chance weeks after completing a move from Al Ettifaq to Al Ittihad and captaining the national team in their Under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers.

Up front, Firas Al Buraikan, another youngster who made a big money move this summer after joining Al Ahli from Al Fateh, is in line to start thanks to his five league goals so far, but he will still have to see off competition from Al Hilal duo Abdullah Al Hamdan and Saleh Al Shehri.

Updated: October 13, 2023, 10:04 AM