With less than two weeks to go, Noureddine Ould Ali and the PFA have yet to reveal the names of the players who will travel to Riyadh for a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
There has however been an announcement from the Saudi National Team who released the names of 26 players tasked with playing one of only three World Cup qualifiers on the continent this month.
Herve Renard’s squad retains some veterans who represented Saudi Arabia at the 2018 World Cup but also includes several youngsters.
Salman Al-Faraj, Saudi Arabia’s captain, will miss the tie through injury. While defender Ziad Al-Safahi and midfielders Hattan Al-Bahebri, and Abdulfattah Al-Asiri who were starters when the teams met in Al-Ram, have also been omitted from the squad.
Fahad Al-Muwallad inclusion marks the first time the Al-Ittihad forward has been called up by Herve Renard.
The consensus on the Saudi street is that Renard’s Saudi Arabia remains a work in progress and while they have yet to taste defeat in the qualifiers; the Green Falcons have looked unconvincing in all but one of their games- a 3-0 home victory against Singapore.
Only six players in the squad have more than 20 games of international experience; the aforementioned Al-Muwallad, alongside Goalkeeper Mohammed Oweis, defenders Mohammed Al-Breik and Yousef Al-Shahrani, and midfielders Salem Al-Dowsary and Abduallah Otayf.
The changing of the guard has been a theme for Saudi Arabia since the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and that has continued under Renard who took over from Juan Antonio Pizzi in the Summer of 2019.
The position of goalkeeper which has been an plagued Saudi Arabia for nearly a decade continues to be an issue. Mohammed Oweis has had an underwhelming season for Al-Ahli and has kept only one clean sheet while being shuffled in and out of the lineup. The three other options on the bench have never played a game at international level.
Saudi Arabia’s attackers have not covered themselves in glory, either. Only one Saudi player has hit double digit goals in the league this season- the uncapped Hassan Al-Amiri of Al-Qadsiah. Salem Al-Dowsary has hit six for Hilal while no other player in the squad has scored more than four goals this season.
While it is true that Abdullah Al-Hamdan, one of the youngest players in the squad, leads the league in assists (8) he will not have Bafetimbi Gomis or Carlos Guanca on the end of his passes while with the national team.
Since the last time they met…
The last time Palestine met Saudi Arabia in October 2019, the Palestinians were the more experienced side by every metric- goals, tenure, and caps. The flow of the game was also indicative of this, while the Saudis kept possession they generated only one real scoring chance over the 90 minutes. Their Palestinian counterparts generated four or five but could not convert.
Since that match, the teams have trended in opposite directions. There was still the feeling that Palestine controlled its own destiny in the group but back-to-back losses to Yemen and Uzbekistan leaves Al-Fida’i clinging for dear life in Group D.
The mood surrounding the team in 2020 was downright dour. A B-team participated in, and won, the Bangabandhu Gold Cup defeating Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Burundi along the way. That joy was short lived as the PFA refused to make any changes to its leadership in the boardroom or on the bench. Then there was the scandal over payments in the WBPL that led to a mass exodus of players.
All in all, Palestine and its players needed a break in 2020 so the suspension of international play came as a blessing in disguise. When the team did reunite for a friendly against Kuwait in January an experimental team put together a great performance and delivered a 1-0 victory.
The stoppage, on the other hand, will not have helped Renard who is still looking to marry convincing play with solid results. The 2019 Gulf Cup could have provided an opportunity for a piece of silverware but the Saudis opened the tournament up with a 3-1 loss to Kuwait while they recovered with a 2-0 win over Bahrain and a 3-1 win over Oman the outfit was far from its best in the knockout stage. A fluke goal was enough to get them past Qatar despite registering only 35% possession. In the final, an early missed penalty proved to be the difference with Bahrain emerging 1-0 winners.
A pair of friendlies against Jamaica in November garnered a 3-0 win and a 1-2 defeat but make no mistake this is a team with more questions than answers:
Will Mohammed Oweis continue to start in goal?
What is the team’s best centreback pairing? Can they handle speedy forwards?
What is the team’s Plan B? Can Al-Buraikan (20) and Al-Hamdan (21) shoulder the attacking responsibility?
Saudi Arabia wrested victory from the jaws of defeat against Uzbekistan giving them full control of Group D- provided they can take care of teams they historically have not had an issue with.
That said, this Saudi team is anything but historic and abject performances against Yemen and Palestine in World Cup qualifying provide proof of that. As does the dearth of Saudi talent in the Saudi Pro League. It will be up to Renard to work his alchemy to plot a path to neighboring Qatar for the World Cup next year.