Saudi Arabia are looking for a “special” showing at next year’s Asian Cup in the UAE, as they aim to build upon their recent World Cup experience.
The Gulf side, the region’s only representative in Russia last month, exited at the group stage, but improved as the tournament progressed and now hold high hopes of a strong Asian Cup in less than six months’ time.
At the World Cup, Juan Antonio Pizzi's side recovered from a 5-0 defeat to Russia in the opening match to eventually beat Egypt and record their first victory at a global finals in 24 years. Saudi finished third in Group A, with Pizzi's contract extended soon after until the conclusion of the Asian Cup.
Attentions have now turned to the continent's premier tournament, which takes place in the Emirates for only the second time, from January 5 to February 1. Saudi, three-time champions but without a title since 1996, have been drawn in Group E alongside Qatar, Lebanon and North Korea. For the first time, the event has been expanded to 24 teams.
“For sure, the players will take away experience from the World Cup,” said Omar Bakhashwain, the Saudi national team manager. “Any positives we left with we can use in the next competition and the negative things we have to try to forget and not do again.
“You can never predict what is going to happen, though. You have to know that all teams at the Asian Cup are well prepared, respect them all and be ready for everything.
“What is important is to be one team and one unit - especially the spirit. If the preparation is good we can achieve something special, but it will be difficult. Football in Asia is getting stronger and stronger.
“All teams are strong now. There are five or six teams at almost the same level, plus you can always expect surprises from the others.”
Although Asian football has changed significantly since 1996, Saudi will take heart from the fact that back then, on the only other occasion the UAE has staged the event, they clinched the trophy.
However, Bakhashwain played down the benefit of contesting a tournament so close to home soil.
“Travelling is not so important for most of the teams because we all travel and the climate also is not so important because most teams will come two weeks before,” he said. “In Russia, we played in Volgograd where it's hot and Moscow where it’s cold, so you adapt quickly.
“It is, however, a similar atmosphere to Saudi in terms of food and language, so this will be a slight advantage. Really, any advantage you can find you try to make work for you.”