Revamped Saudis pose new threat to Socceroos

The Saudi Arabia side Australia faces in their crucial World Cup qualifier at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday night will be vastly different to the one that drew 2-2 with the Socceroos in Jeddah last year.


Australia's Mile Jedinak (right) marks Saudi Arabia's Nawaf Al Abed during the World Cup qualifier in Jeddah on October 6, 2016. Source: AFP

Dutchman Bert van Marwijk has done an incredible job in turning around the fortunes of the Green Falcons to the point they now stand on the verge of qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup since 2006.

But he has been forced to shake up his side with key players absent with injuries or suspension.

Arguably the team’s two biggest stars, Al Hilal’s Nawaf Al-Abed and Al Ittihad’s Fahad Al-Muwallad, are sidelined with suspension and injury respectively.

The loss of Al-Abed in particular is a blow for van Marwijk and the Saudis, as the 27-year-old has established himself as the key player in this Saudi side over the last 18 months, with his goals and assists crucial in getting Saudi to where they are in their qualifying group.

They go into Thursday's match sitting second in the group, only behind leaders Japan on goal difference, and ahead of Australia in third spot.

It was Al-Abed's creativity that helped set up the first goal for Taisir Al-Jassim in just the fifth minute when they played Australia last October, while he also had an important touch in Nasser Al-Shamrani’s equaliser.

The man selected to replace Al-Abed, Al Ahli’s Housain Al-Mogahwi, scored a cracking goal to help Al Ahli advance to the AFC Champions League quarter-final last week.

But given he is more of a central midfielder than a playmaker, it’s likely Al-Jassim will take the reins as the side’s key creative outlet.

Al-Jassim, the experienced veteran with over 100 caps to his name, was impressive against Australia in Jeddah, showing a willingness to get in the box and run at the defence.

The man up front looking to prove a thorn in the side of Australia yet again will be Al-Shamrani. The 33-year-old earned a recall last time around against Australia in Jeddah, scoring the equaliser after coming off the bench, and has since cemented himself as the target man for Saudi Arabia.

With Naif Hazazi not selected after a poor run of form for his club side Al Nassr, and Mohammed Al-Sahlawi equally out of touch, Al-Shamrani will be the go-to man for the Green Falcons.

Since making the loan move from Al Hilal to the UAE’s Al Ain in January, Al-Shamrani has found a rich vein of form, scoring 11 goals in 15 matches, including eight goals in his last six matches. He is a confidence player, and at the moment his confidence is sky high.

Defensively, the Saudis have proved to be a tough nut to crack, conceding only five times in their seven matches this campaign, two of which were against Australia.

But here too they are missing key men; with left back Yasser Al-Shahrani injured and van Marwijk opting against selecting regular right back Hassan Muath, declaring the Al Shabab defender “not mentally ready” after finding himself in the middle of an elongated transfer saga.

It’s a remarkable statement for a coach to make about one of his players, but shows how serious van Marwijk is about taking this team to the World Cup.

Even those who might consider themselves regulars aren’t guaranteed a spot if they aren’t in the right frame of mind. It sends a message to the rest of the team.

The 65-year-old wants a laser focus and has had his team in camp, including a five-day stint in Germany, for the past two weeks.

The former Dutch coach has also instituted a media ban to ensure his team’s focus remains solely on Thursday’s match.

While most expect Saudi Arabia to play for the draw, they are a side that are at their best when they play their natural game and push forward and attack.

Understrength they may be, but van Marwijk has this team primed for success. The Socceroos need to be on guard.

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4 min read
Published 5 June 2017 at 6:33pm
By Paul Williams