Qualifying for their sixth World Cup overall and second in a row wasn’t all that difficult for Saudi Arabia. Despite a tricky group, where heavyweights Japan and Australia probably started off as favorites, the Saudis’ only loss came away to Japan. While everyone else lost points to a surprisingly competitive Oman, Saudi Arabia took first place on the last match-day.
Kudos to 54-year-old head coach Herve Renard too. After winning the African crown with first Zambia and then Ivory Coast, he is now going to his second straight World Cup. Last time around with Morocco, his team was very competitive in a group with heavyweights Portugal and Spain, succumbing to a late draw with the latter.
How do they play?
With all of the team playing in the local league, Saudi Arabia is one of the few teams that can prepare for the tournament in a meaningful way. Head coach Renard will have around a month and several friendlies to gel the team together, and they need to make the most of it: in a group with Argentina, Poland, and Mexico, they will have to outperform.
Having scored just 1,74 goals per 90 minutes in qualifying, expect games to be tight, tactical, and combative. They had a lot of the ball, but not many shots. In Qatar, it will all come down to handling the opposition. Renard prefers a four-man back-line, but they will likely have a specific plan to neutralize every opponent.
Why they can win?
With plenty of preparation and a coach who has both won big games and been the underdog before, they won’t go down without a fight. And miracles do happen. After all, they are playing not too far from home, and the climate won’t surprise the Saudis.
Why they can lose?
They just don’t have the talent. When looking up the 32 qualified teams in the FIFA World Ranking, only Saudi Arabia and Ghana find themselves outside the top 50, and Ghana is arguably more capable. Regular football fans won’t find a single familiar player on the Saudis roster. The group is a challenge and it won’t get any easier later.
The leading stars
Al-Hilal 33-year-old midfielder Salman Al-Faraj, captain for both club and country, is a key cog in midfield. He is a proven performer, having won seven local titles and two AFC Champions Leagues with the club. Four years ago he scored in the win against Egypt, but the tournament was a disappointment – can his experience carry Saudi Arabia this time around?
The fresh faces
Few Saudis have ever played abroad, but 22-year-old Al-Fateh striker Firas Al-Buraikan might get an offer if he shines. Renard certainly trusts him, and in qualifying, Al-Buraikan rewarded his coach with winning goals against Japan, China, and Oman. Despite not being a proven goal-scorer yet, he has many qualities expected of a modern striker.