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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Marcus Krum

Saudi Arabia World Cup Preview: Scoring Woes Can’t Persist

For the first time since 2006, Saudi Arabia cruised to the top of its group in the final round of AFC World Cup qualifying, nailing home its spot in Qatar with a win over Australia in the last match. The second-lowest-ranked team to reach the World Cup this year (51st in the world) should have plenty of confidence after finishing over No. 24-ranked Korea Republic in the table.

The good news for the Green Falcons is that they’ve had the opportunity to play a host of pre-tournament friendlies after their qualifying campaign, several of which were against teams headed to Qatar. The bad news is that the team found the net just four times in nine matches.

Manager Hervé Renard, who led both the Ivory Coast and Zambia to Africa Cup of Nations titles, is now finally at his first World Cup. He took over a side that has only reached the knockout stage once before, doing so back in 1994.

The talent of this year’s team doesn’t stack up to most in the field, but it’s a group of players familiar with each other (most play in the Saudi Pro League), many of whom have World Cup experience from 2018. Renard will need to produce some more of his tournament magic to take this side on a run at Qatar.

Group C Schedule (all times Eastern)

- Argentina, Nov. 22, 5 a.m.

- Poland, Nov. 26, 8 a.m.

- Mexico, Nov. 30, 2 p.m.


Hervé Renard, hired in July 2019

Al-Dawsari could be the key to unlocking Saudi Arabia’s dormant attack.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/ZUMA Wire/Imago Images

Players to Watch

Salem Al-Dawsari, winger

Playing as an attacking midfielder or wide forward in Renard’s system, Al-Dawsari was the primary goal scorer in qualifying with seven in 13 matches. He’ll have to regain form after an injury kept him out of several pre-tournament friendlies, but the 2021 AFC Champions League most valuable player will be crucial to turning around his side’s goal drought.

Yasser Al-Shahrani, defender

Al-Shahrani is a versatile defender who typically plays at left back for the Green Falcons. He was one of Saudi Arabia’s most consistent players during qualifying, starting 15 matches and aiding a defense that allowed just 10 goals.

Salman Al-Faraj, midfielder

The defensive midfielder has captained this side for years, but he enters with an injury concern, having hurt his shoulder in a recent friendly vs. Iceland. The 33-year-old Al-Hilal player is one of the most experienced members of the Green Falcons, now on his third World Cup cycle. He scored on a penalty kick in 2018 in the team’s lone win, which came against Egypt. Al-Faraj was sorely missed in a few of the pre-tournament friendlies, and his ability to control the game in the midfield could kick this Saudi attack into gear if he’s at his best.

Al-Buraikan’s place in Saudi Arabia’s starting lineup isn’t settled, but the 22-year-old could well play a big role in Qatar.

Nigel Owen/Action Plus

Breakout Candidate

Firas Al-Buraikan, forward

The main man at Saudi side Al Fetah first broke into the national team in qualifying in 2019. He earned a starting spot by scoring game-winning goals off the bench in consecutive qualifiers against Japan and China.

It appeared that Al-Buraikan had secured his role as the Green Falcons’ No. 9 after qualifying, but the run of poor form in fall friendlies left the starting spot up for grabs. Even if he is relegated to a reserve role behind Saleh Al-Shehri, the 22-year-old should at least play a part as a spark off the bench if needed.

World Cup History

- Sixth appearance

- Last appearance: 2018

- Best finish: Round of 16 in 1994

Outlook and Expectations

Few Asian nations have had more success globally than Saudi Arabia. But this year’s group provides three difficult matchups. Powerhouse Argentina is the likely winner, and star-studded Mexico and Poland sides make qualification for the knockout stage a tall order—only Group E’s Costa Rica has lower odds to make it out of its group.

If there’s one quality that stands out about the Green Falcons, it's their ability to stay compact and allow limited space to opposition forwards—something that will be put to the test by all-world talents Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski. The talent is there to end the goal scoring woes in Al-Dawsari and Al-Buraikan. But any return to the round of 16 will hinge on whether or not they can find the back of the net.

World Cup Squad

GOALKEEPERS: Nawaf Al-Aqidi (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), Mohamed Al-Yami (Al-Ahly)

DEFENDERS: Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Amri (Al-Nassr), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), Sultan Al-Ghanam (Al-Nassr), Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Abdullah Madu (Al-Nassr), Hassan Tambakti (Al-Shabab) 

MIDFIELDERS: Abdulrahman Al-Aboud (Ittihad), Nasser Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Hassan (Al-Nassr), Abdulelah Al-Malki (Al-Hilal), Sami Al-Najei (Al-Nassr), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), Riyadh Sharahili (Abha)

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