The Falcons are being regarded as one of the contenders to win the tournament.
As we go deeper into the AFC Asian Cup, the heavyweights of Asian football and also the political hotbed of World football, Saudi Arabia, are amongst the talk of the town. They were one of the five Asian nations to qualify for the FIFA World Cup last year and their path to it was smooth sailing.
Their investment in football and the way they run their system has been an inspiration to the other Asian countries who seek World Cup glory, but the continental heavyweights were knocked out at the group stages, despite securing a win against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
Post the dismal results, the Saudis didn’t lie down but started preparing for the Asian Cup in earnest, by playing friendlies against opponents all across the globe and improving themselves in preparation for the showcase of Asian football.
They have played Bolivia and Brazil from South America; Iraq, Yemen and Jordan, their neighbours in the Middle East as well in their most recent game, against fellow World-Cuppers South Korea.
They have lost only one of these games, against a stylistically brilliant Neymar Jr. led Brazilian outfit and have had the lion’s share of possession in the rest of the games. However, they have not got victories except one against Yemen in this period, but in none of their games were opponents allowed any breathing space.
In the game against Yemen, the Saudis held a whopping 76% possession and against Jordan, it was 71%. Only South Korea came close, but were tipped 51-49. Led by a formidable tactician in Juan Anotnio Pizzi, the Saudi team have looked adept in possession, playing the Spanish way and and frustrating the opponents into submission. Although, this style has assured them possession over long durations of the game, it hasn’t necessarily translated into results.
That makes only one win in six games post the World Cup, where they returned home with a victory over a much talked about team, is not a great record. To make matters worse, they are in the proverbial Group of Death, alongside Asian heavyweights North Korea, Lebanon and Qatar.
North Korea and Qatar have been known to play attacking football and are brilliant on the counter-attack, where the Saudi defences will be put to the test at every tiny error they make. While Lebanon are tough taskmasters and are adept at breaking down opposition ranks through creative play as well brute force, something that even Qatar are known for.
While the Falcons don’t lack any physical attributes or altitude needed to compete, they do seem to be slower on the pitch as compared to their opponents and rely on zonal marking to break up attacks. Against Brazil, they sat back and absorbed the pressure and took the ball away by pressing in areas where they saw weaknesses in the Brazilian ranks.
But pace and trickery outdid them there and even against Bolivia and Jordan, where they drew the games due to their inability to deal with pacy attacks. While North Korea will be clearly looking to exploit this disadvantage and Qatar’s lineup also boasts of some wily customers. Saudi Arabia will have to be wary of what they are going up against and might have to introspect to avoid errors.
Overall, it is clear that the Saudis look lower on confidence as compared to the time before the World Cup and the debacle has hit them hard. Also, as the Asian Cup has placed them in a hard group, there is a big chance that barring some miracle or a third-place mathematical permutation, it looks difficult for the Falcons to make it out of the group stage this time around.