Kuala Lumpur: Properly over two years for the reason that begin of the Asian Qualifiers – Highway to Qatar, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all the way down to 12 groups competing for 4 direct tickets to the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Because the third spherical of the Asian Qualifiers will get underway in just a few days’ time, the-AFC.com profiles every of the 12 groups within the two teams by way of historical past and key gamers.
Giants of Asian soccer on all ranges, Saudi Arabia returned to the FIFA World Cup in 2018 after an absence of 12 years and will probably be hoping to make it back-to-back appearances for the primary time since qualifying for 2002 and 2006.
Saudi Arabia entered the Asian Qualifiers in September 2019 with a brand new supervisor on the helm because the extremely rated Frenchman Herve Renard was introduced on to interchange Juan Antonio Pizzo whose reign resulted in a disappointing Spherical-of-16 exit on the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
A two-time African Cup of Nations winner with Zambia 2013 and Cote d’Ivoire 2015, Renard got down to construct his newest nationwide group undertaking, however outcomes weren’t prompt because the Inexperienced Falcons had been held to 2 attracts by Yemen and Palestine inside their first three video games of the Qualifiers marketing campaign.
A final-minute Salem Al Dawsari objective was wanted to beat Uzbekistan in what turned out to be the final recreation earlier than the Pandemic-enforced stoppage, however it will show to be an important victory within the grand scheme of issues.
Quick ahead to March 2021, and Saudi Arabia had by then developed right into a well-oiled profitable machine. 4 wins on the trot, 14 objectives scored and never a single one conceded within the the rest of Group D matches meant Renard’s males cruised to the third spherical with a five-point margin on the finish.
Solely a few nations in Asia can declare to match Saudi Arabia’s proud FIFA World Cup traditions, regardless of the West Asian nation being comparatively late arrivals to the worldwide celebration.
Saudi Arabia had been solely the fourth nation from their area to succeed in the FIFA World Cup, their debut in 1994 coming within the footsteps of Kuwait, Iraq and the UAE, however in contrast to their rivals, the Saudis arrived with a bang.
Within the USA, Saeed Al Owairan turned a family title after his iconic profitable objective towards Belgium, and Saudi Arabia additionally beat Morocco to advance to the Spherical of 16 on their debut earlier than bowing out to eventual semi-finalists Sweden.
It was a excessive that the Saudis couldn’t climb once more, however they had been capable of construct on that success to ascertain themselves as perennial qualifiers to the worldwide occasion, representing the AFC in every of the three subsequent editions; France 1998, Japan-Korea Republic 2002 and Germany 2006.
A drop part adopted, however by 2018 Saudi Arabia had been again the place they belonged, qualifying to Russia 2018 and even getting their first win since that Belgium recreation, defeating Egypt 2-1 with Salem Al Dawsari and Salman Al Faraj getting on the scoresheet.
Salem Al Dawsari
Saudi Arabia’s talisman, Al Dawsari not too long ago turned 30 however his electrical tempo and skill to beat defenders has solely gotten higher with age.
A person for the massive events, the Al Hilal winger is the one Saudi participant to attain in all the AFC Asian Cup, AFC Champions League, FIFA World Cup, FIFA Membership World Cup and the Olympics.
Regardless of lacking chunks of the Asian Qualifiers – Highway to Qatar, Al Dawsari is his nation’s prime scorer within the Qualifiers with 5 objectives, and if he can keep match at some stage in the third spherical, Saudi Arabia’s possibilities of advancing to Qatar 2022 will definitely be boosted.
Salman Al Faraj
Al Dawsari’s membership and nation teammate and captain for each, Salman Al Faraj is the fulcrum of the Saudi midfield in addition to the group’s pure chief.
A left footed deep playmaker, Al Faraj usually unlocks defences together with his visionary passing or goes on marauding runs via the center earlier than both establishing a teammate or attempting to take a pop himself.
However the 32-year-old is equally spectacular defensively, counting on his capability to anticipate and intercept relatively than on physicality to contribute to his aspect’s ball restoration efforts.
For all their abundance of attacking expertise, Saudi Arabia wanted a frontrunner in defence after the retirement of Osama Hawsawi and so up stepped the imposing Al Nassr centre-back.
A one-club man who has led his aspect to a few league titles since making his debut in 2012, Madu received his maiden worldwide call-up pretty late, placing on the Inexperienced shirt for the primary time as a 26-year-old in 2019, however he has since not regarded again, making himself indispensable on the coronary heart of defence.
Prone to be partnered up with the extra cellular left-footed Ali Al Bulayhi, Madu rallies the troops from behind and at 187 centimetres, he’s a troublesome opponent to beat within the air.
Saudi Arabia will really feel some familiarity as they tackle their Group B rivals. Each Australia and Japan had been drawn towards the Saudis for the second time in a row.
Within the 2018 Qualifiers, Saudi Arabia certified in second place, a single level behind group winners Japan, and pipping Australia solely because of a superior objective distinction, regardless of not having the ability to defeat the Socceroos of their two matches, drawing 2-2 in Jeddah and shedding 3-2 in Adelaide.
Saudi Arabia confronted Vietnam twice within the 2002 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, beating them 4-0 and 5-0, however coach Renard will know that soccer within the Southeast Asian nation has advanced drastically over the previous 20 years and the Vietnamese are a troublesome opponent to face in 2021.
China PR and Oman spherical off a bunch during which Saudi Arabia will probably be nicely conscious there aren’t any simple matches en path to Qatar 2022.
Ballot ends at 17:00 (UTC+8) on August 31.
Pictures: AFP, AFC