With just 80 days until the Fifa World Cup kicks off in Moscow, Saudi Arabia’s readiness to spoil Russia’s opening night party will be laid bare today when they face Belgium at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels.
Saudi will return to the game’s grandest stage for the first time since 2006 when they face the hosts in the tournament curtain-raiser on June 14 at Luzhniki Stadium.
With the Green Falcons the only team ranked lower than Russia at the month-long, 32-team tournament, new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is well aware three points is likely essential if his squad is to have a chance of progressing to the knock-out stages.
Pizzi, a 49-year-old Argentine who led Chile to glory at the 2016 Copa America, was appointed by the Saudi football federation in late November after compatriot Edgardo Bauza had been dismissed following only three matches in charge.
Pizzi wisely opted to hold off taking the reins until after December’s Gulf Cup — at which a below-par Saudi were eliminated in the group stage — so has overseen only three matches so far.
The first two friendlies, a 3-0 win over Moldova in Jeddah and a 4-1 defeat to Iraq in Basra, were unofficial, experimental and largely unenlightening. Yet such patchy preparations only made Friday night’s 1-1 draw with Ukraine in Marbella all the more impressive.
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Starting on the back foot against a team ranked 35th in the world, Saudi fell behind inside the first 32 minutes, but showed belief and bravery to quickly draw level and finished the match arguably the better team.
Pizzi said the performance had convinced him his team is “improving and advancing in the direction that we want”, while Andrey Shevchenko, the Ukraine coach, said he had been impressed by Saudi’s compact set-up and ability to press across the field.
Perhaps unsurprising given relations between Ukraine and Russia, he added Saudi have a good chance of beating Russia.
The most notable aspect of the performance was not Saudi’s ability to scare a side positioned 34 places above them in Fifa’s official world rankings, but rather the courage and comfort they showed while in possession.
Insiders had suggested pre-match that Pizzi was trying to instil a tiki-taka philosophy and it was immediately apparent as green shirts swarmed the ball from kick-off, while calmly playing triangles in defence when under pressure.
Errors were inevitably made on occasion, but make no mistake, this was not a tweaking of tactics but a wholesale transformation from the, admittedly short, Edgardo Bauza era.
With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaka all expected to feature, Belgium are certain to provide more of an attacking threat on Tuesday.
Saudi may need to slightly curb their learning curve if they are to avoid being punished. For all their second-half amelioration, they could have been three goals down inside the opening half-hour were it not for excellent last-ditch blocks from centre-back Omar Hawsawi and goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem.
Another potential issue for Pizzi is the fitness of his first-team. Salem Al Dawsari, Fahad Al Muwallad and Yahia Al Shehri were part of a nine-player contingent sent to Spain in January to gain international experience in the Primera Liga.
None of the three have managed to break into their respective new teams, Villarreal, Levante and Leganes so the Ukraine match marked their first competitive minutes of 2018.
Pizzi, while playing down the issue in public, must be concerned by their lack of action ahead of a gruelling tournament that will see them play three high-intensity games in 11 days.
For now though, Tuesday’s clash with Belgium represents a final chance for Pizzi and his staff to run the rule over his players before they are released to their domestic clubs on Wednesday morning.
The next time he meets them, in May for friendlies against Algeria and Greece, they will be just one month out from the raising of the iron curtain on the game’s most illustrious showpiece.