If anything, the only media coverage to do with Saudi Arabia this week has been their decision to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and lead something of a Middle East uprising against their gas-rich neighbour.
While nobody could compare that potentially earth-shaping event to happenings on a football field, the fact that Saudi Arabia can virtually secure their place at the 2018 World Cup tonight – and send the Socceroos via the dreaded play-off route – is worthy of closer inspection
We take a look at the five key reasons the Green Falcons might trouble the Green and Gold.
1. Clever Dutch tactics, but not as you know it
Bert van Marwijk has proven something of a revelation in charge of Saudi Arabia, at least in terms of results. Most will remember him as the coach who took the Dutch all the way to the World Cup final in 2010 with a tough, uncompromising style – epitomised by brutal central pairing of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. Unsurprisingly, the former is now van Marwijk’s assistant.
Middle East football journalist Wael Jabir, co-founder of Ahdaaf.me, says that same template still exists.
“They’re very tactically disciplined and pragmatic, very reminiscent of the Netherlands team in 2010,” Jabir said. “They line up in a 4-5-1 and the goals, more often than not, come from midfielders and defenders. This makes up for the lack of truly top-class strikers in the side.”
2. Australia’s home record wont bother the visitors
The Socceroos are virtually bullet-proof at home; their only competitive defeat in recent times coming during the Asian Cup in 2015, when they were beaten 1-0 by South Korea in the group stages.
But Saudi Arabia have already picked up a pair of wins on the road – and 3-1 against Thailand and 2-1 against Iraq – to demonstrate their travelling ability.
And while Australians get uncomfortable about the idea of playing for a draw, the Saudi Arabian perspective is vastly different.
“Saudi were content after the 2-2 draw against Australia in Jeddah – and the key takeaway from that game is that van Marwijk is not afraid of being the pragmatist and playing for a draw,” Jabir said. “And that same approach is most likely the way he will set the team up in Adelaide.”
3. Team Unity: the long-lost missing ingredient
Since suffering a shock defeat in the final the 2007 Asian Cup, Saudi teams have been criticised for being individually-oriented and lacking the cohesion to work together. That couldn’t be further from the truth with the 2017 edition.
“In terms of individual talent, this team does not match the mid-1990's team or even the 1980's team. There isn’t a Sami Al-Jaber or a Majed Abdullah,” Jabir said. “However, what this team has is the right attitude, team spirit and tactical awareness – which significantly boosts their slightly above-average talents.”
4. Remember Nasser Al-Shamrani? He’s back (and in form)
If ever there was an Asian footballer who deserved to inherit Mario Ballotelli’s “Why Always Me?” shirt, it’s Al-Shamrani.
A spot in Australian football infamy rests with Al-Shamrani, who spat at then-Western Sydney Wanderers’ defender Matthew Spiranovic at the conclusion of the 2014 AFC Champions League final.
Seemingly a spent force, he’s worked his way back into the national team starting side and is sure to give the Socceroos plenty to get nervous about.
“At 33 years old, the former Asian Player of the Year is past his peak – but he remains a clinical finisher with a commendable work rate for a player of his age,” Jabir said. “And yes, he is as controversial as ever. His latest antics came in a dressing room Snapchat video taken by Omar Abdulrahman following Al Ain’s 6-1 thumping of Esteghlal, where he taunted the Iranians.
“Controversy aside, his six-month loan spell in the UAE produced eight league goals in 11 matches and the fact that he is ahead of Mohammed Al-Sahlawi in van Marwijk’s plans is testament to his ability and endurance.”
5. Beware the Saudi Wesley Sneijder
Having battled so long to find a proper playmaker ourselves – until the arrival of Tom Rogic – Australia is all too aware of the value of such a player.
And the Saudi’s have one that could cause Mile Jedinak and his comrades all sorts of problems. With 118 caps and 17 goals to his name, it’s no wonder Taisir Al-Jassim is rated so highly.
“In Nawaf Al-Abed, Fahd Al-Muwallad and Yasser Al-Shahrani, Saudi Arabia are without three key men, so the experience of Al-Jassim will be vital,” says Jabir. “Al-Ahli’s captain plays the “Wesley Sneijder role” in van Marwijk’s team. He's a skillful play-maker who is also not afraid to do the dirty work. His deliveries from set-pieces are crucial – and so is his ability to rally his teammates.”