After missing the last two tournaments, Saudi Arabia will make their World Cup return in Group A against Russia, Egypt and Uruguay, where they will look to win their first game at the finals since 1994.
Juan Antonio Pizzi
Saudi Arabia beat Japan in their final group game in the AFC third round Group B, thanks to Fahad Al-Muwallad’s goal, which saw them qualify for the World Cup as group runners-up. Saudi Arabia ultimately finished one point behind Japan but ahead of Australia on goal difference.
Nawaf Al Abed was one of five players in qualifying Group B to score five goals in the third round, topping the Saudi goalscoring charts in the process.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia had finished top of their second-round group, courtesy of six wins and two draws from their eight games. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi scored 14 goals for Saudi Arabia to comfortably be second-round top scorer.
Saudi Arabia qualified for four consecutive World Cup finals between 1994 and 2006, but none since then – this will be their fifth appearance in the finals. They lost in the group stage in each of their last three tournaments without winning a game – their only two World Cup match wins having come in America in 1994.
Juan Antonio Pizzi is Saudi Arabia’s third manager in less than a year, after Bert van Marwijk – the man who led them to the World Cup – did not renew his contract and instead took charge of Australia. Van Marwijk was replaced by Edgardo Bauza, but the new manager lasted just two months in the role before Pizzi was brought in. Pizzi’s preparations have been hampered by the decision to send players on loan to La Liga backfiring, however. Yahya Al-Shehri did not play a single game for Leganes, Salem Al-Dawsari did not feature for Villarreal and Fahad Al-Muwallad’s Levante experience amounted to just ten minutes as a late substitute.
All three are in Saudi Arabia’s squad, however, having been released early to join the national team’s Spanish training camp and playing in the friendly against Greece to get back up to match speed. From the provisional squad named for Saudi Arabia’s pre-tournament training camp and friendlies, 44-times capped midfielder Nawaf Al-Abed is the most experienced player to have missed the cut for the final 23.
Captain Osama Hawsawi and midfielder Taisir Al-Jassim bring stacks of international experience to Saudi Arabia and striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi has a brilliant strike rate in international football, but the decision to send players to experience domestic European football is new. Fahad Al Muwallad, who scored the goal which sent Saudi Arabia to the World Cup, has got closest to a La Liga appearance of the three main players sent out on loan. Much is expected of Salem Al-Dawsari, meanwhile, and Pizzi will hope his experience training in Spain, despite not playing, will hold him in good stead for the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia’s only two victories in recent friendlies came outside of the FIFA international window, beating Algeria and Greece, both 2-0, as part of their Spanish training camp. Since then, two fixtures in Switzerland both ended in defeat – Yahya Al-Shehri’s late goal not proving enough in a 2-1 defeat to Italy, before a 3-0 loss to Peru. They then lost their final World Cup warm-up against Germany – Taisir Al-Jassim’s late goal not enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat.
1 – Abdullah Al-Mayouf (Al-Hilal) – Age 31 – 11 caps/0 goals
21 – Yasser Al-Mosailem (Al-Ahli) – Age 34 – 32 caps/0 goals
22 – Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Ahli) – Age 26 – 6 caps/0 goals
2 – Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al-Ahli) – Age 30 – 40 caps/1 goal
3 – Osama Hawsawi (Al-Hilal) – Age 34 – 135 caps/7 goals
4 – Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal) – Age 28 – 4 caps/0 goals
5 – Omar Hawsawi (Al-Nassr) – Age 32 – 42 caps/3 goals
6 – Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal) – Age 25 – 11 caps/1 goals
13 – Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal) – Age 26 – 37 caps/0 goals
23 – Motaz Hawsawi (Al-Ahli) – Age 26 – 17 caps/0 goals
7 – Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal) – Age 28 – 43 caps/3 goals
8 – Yahya Al-Shehri (Leganes) – Age 27 – 57 caps/8 goals
9 – Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab) – Age 25 – 5 caps/0 goals
11 – Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al-Hilal) – Age 32 – 36 caps/0 goals
12 – Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal) – Age 23 – 6 caps/1 goal
14 – Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal) – Age 25 – 16 caps/1 goal
15- Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al-Shabab) – Age 21 – 5 caps/0 goals
16 – Housain Al-Mogahwi (Al-Ahli) – Age 30 – 18 caps/1 goal
17 – Taisir Al-Jassim (Al-Ahli) – Age 33 – 132 caps/19 goals
18 – Salem Al-Dawsari (Villarreal) – Age 26 – 33 caps/4 goals
10 – Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr) – Age 31 – 40 caps/28 goals
19 – Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante) – Age 23 – 45 caps/10 goals
20 – Muhannad Assiri (Al-Ahli) – Age 31 – 18 caps/4 goals
Saudi Arabia have not won a single game at a World Cup finals in their last three attempts – their only victories came in the USA in 1994. And it could be another winless World Cup for the Saudis this time out too, despite their attempts to gain more competitive experience for their key players.
With none of the players sent to Spain playing first-team football, the move is likely to prove less successful as they head to the World Cup short of match fitness – however much they may have gained from a new training outlook.
A 1-1 draw with Ukraine showed they can occasionally pull of decent results against the European sides, but either side of that they lost 4-1 to Iraq and 4-0 to Belgium. Russia, with the weight of a nation on their shoulders, will expect to beat the Saudis in the opening fixture of this year’s tournament, while Egypt and Uruguay should also prove too strong.
They are unlikely to advance beyond the group stage, and as a result it is little surprise to find them priced at 2/5 to finish bottom of Group A.
All of their group-stage opponents have successful European-based players, not least Egypt with Mo Salah and Uruguay with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. That is firepower Saudi Arabia simply can not compete with.
Saudi Arabia have failed to win a game at either of their last three World Cup finals, and it would be a surprise if they managed to improve that record in Group A in Russia.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions