Taskmaster Roberto Mancini has Saudi Arabia playing for the nation at the Asian Cup

Green Falcons hope to end group stage with maximum points after final game against Thailand

Saudi Arabia manager Roberto Mancini instructs Abdulrahman Ghareeb during the Asian Cup match against Kyrgyzstan. AP
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Roberto Mancini might have been born in Iesi, a small town on the Adriatic Sea, but it was in Rome where he enjoyed some of his greatest successes as a player, including winning a domestic league-and-cup double with Lazio in 2000 and being a central figure in the Roman team’s twin European trophy triumphs the year before.

The city of Mancini’s glory days was not built in a day, and neither will his Saudi Arabian legacy be, but just five months since his surprise appointment as new national team manager, two weeks after he walked out of the Italy head coach's job, the Italian tactician has already left his mark on the Green Falcons.

Should Saudi Arabia lift their fourth Asian Cup on February 10, Mancini would become the first coach to combine continental glory in Europe and Asia, having led his home country to the Euro 2020 title.

The journey in Qatar 2023 has so far been full of dramatic turns, but Mancini has been able to navigate through the storms with the type of calm he oozed throughout his playing and managerial career.

Well before the team arrived in Qatar, news of injury of goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais, who had excelled for Saudi Arabia in recent years, including at the World Cup in 2022, served as an early blow for Mancini. A situation that was exasperated by the sudden departure of Al Owais’ understudy Nawaf Al Aqidi from the camp days before the opening match against Oman.

Al Aqidi, 23, was the only Saudi goalkeeper who commanded a regular starting place in the Saudi Pro League, with 16 appearances in Al Nassr colours so far this term. So when he informed Mancini of his unhappiness at not featuring in the pre-tournament friendlies, and his unwillingness to play second fiddle in Qatar, the Italian was left with the three goalkeepers with a combined six caps and three SPL matches in 2023/24 between them.

“We have many players who often don’t play in their clubs,” Mancini reflected, “but we had two weeks of work and we worked well. All the Oman players play regularly, but we are happy with the players that we have. We brought them because we know they are ready to fight for their country.”

Al Aqidi’s Al Nassr teammate Sultan Al Ghannam was also sent packing from Qatar, and veteran Salman Al Faraj, who captained the national team in the most recent World Cup, was another notable exclusion, leaving fans and media split over the decision.

With his first press conference in Doha the day before their opening match against Oman, Mancini left no doubt in anyone’s mind over what he thought.

“I want players who want to stay and fight for the country, not only for themselves,” he said.

“I don’t understand when a young player refuses to come because they don’t know if they will play or not. The national team is not to play, it is to represent your nation. It is a strange situation for me. If they don’t want to come, we have other players and we will choose.”

And so the journey was under way with the 26 men trusted by the boss, who opted to field a three-man defence; the same formation that helped him to European glory with the Azzurri.

With more than 40,000 fans watching at Khalifa International Stadium, an hour into the opening match against Oman, it looked like the dream was about to come crashing down prematurely. A mistake from Hassan Tambakti gave away a penalty inside the opening 15 minutes and the Saudis struggled to get back into the game for the next hour.

But that all changed with Mancini making several changes, one of whom, Abdulrahman Ghareeb, produced a moment of magic to open the scoring in the 78th minute, and it was his delivery, nodded on by Ali Lajami, that allowed centre-back Ali Al Bulayhi to head home the winner deep in added time.

A hard-fought victory meant more than just three points; it restored belief in the team and served as vindication of Mancini’s words, with players fighting for the shirt until the last minute of the game.

A different type of challenge awaited in the next game against Kyrgyzstan. The central Asian side lacked experience and it showed within the first10 minutes when Ayzar Akmatov was sent-off for a rash challenge, and Kimi Merk followed him for an early shower seven minutes into the second half.

Mancini’s men capitalised with goals from Mohammed Kanno and Faisal Al Ghamdi and the score could have been even higher if not for a string of missed chances.

Qualification to the last 16 confirmed, the top spot and an opportunity to end the group stage with the maximum nine points for the first time in history for the three-time Asian champions beckon on Thursday when the Green Falcons take on second-placed Thailand.

By the final whistle, they will also know their last-16 opponents; Uzbekistan, South Korea and Jordan are among the contenders. With memories of an exit at the same stage against Japan in Sharjah five years ago still fresh, a march towards the latter stages will be the next item on Mancini’s agenda.

Just as he had no problems sending Al Ghannam, one of the nation’s best right-backs, packing over his poor attitude, Mancini had no qualms in singling out the man who occupied his place, Saud Abdulhamid, as his best performer ahead of the Thailand game.

“When you go through training camps, you get to know the players better. So, if I chose any player here, it means that I believed in them since before the start of the tournament. The best player in terms of fitness, in hard work, in training is Saud Abdulhamid; his quality is incredible.”

Mancini has already got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet; four goals scored by four players, only one conceded in the last five matches, including the pre-tournament friendlies, and that too from the penalty spot, are all promising signs that the Italian is slowly but steadily instilling in his charges the ethos that led him to success everywhere he went, from Milan to Manchester City to Italy.

Updated: January 25, 2024, 8:29 AM