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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Thursday was a historic day for Saudi Arabian football, one that made international headlines.
The national team are not at the World Cup yet, but whatever happens along the rest of the road to Qatar, the 1-0 win over Japan in Jeddah will enter the annals of famous qualification wins.
A win against a top side is always welcome, and especially so this time as the Green Falcons made Japan look nothing like Asia’s best team.
Now, with a maximum of nine points from three matches, the 2022 World Cup edges closer.
The victory was deserved — only just, but deserved all the same. It would not have mattered in any case since results are all-important in these games. But this was a win based on hard work, team spirit, physicality and composure. It is a victory that should, for the next day or two, be enjoyed for what it was: A famous triumph.
As an exhibition, it would not have pleased the neutral too much. Both teams were sloppy on the ball, and possession was given away too easily, rare for a Japan team known for their passing ability. It was Saudi Arabia that punished their star-studded opponents for their mistakes, however, and not, as many may have expected, the other way around.
While they could have been better on the ball, off it Herve Renard’s men were immense. The hosts kept their shape, and their nerve, and the French coach’s grin at the end was as wide as the gap between the two Group B rivals.
Now, incredibly, after just three Group B games, the Green Falcons are flying high, six points clear of the Samurai Blue and, more importantly, six points clear in the automatic qualification places. Should China be defeated in Jeddah on Tuesday, it is hard to imagine Saudi Arabia failing to qualify for a sixth World Cup.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The record books will show that with 19 minutes remaining, substitute Firas Al-Buraikan latched on to a dreadful back pass from Gaku Shibasaki and, advancing on goal, coolly slotted the ball past Shuichi Gonda from just inside the area.
“I was so happy to score the winning goal,” Al-Buraikan said after the game. “Coach Renard told me to put pressure on the opposition defense and I managed to take advantage of a mistake.”
The 21-year-old did more than that. The records will not show the delight at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah. This was not just because there were around 45,000 fans present, the first substantial crowd to watch the national team at home since pre-pandemic times, but also because of how far this team has come since Renard took the reins in 2019.
There was the usual intensity and desire to get the ball forward at speed, but without the injured Salem Al-Dossari, Salman Al-Faraj produced a real captain’s performance, working hard to deny the Japanese team space and driving his own men forward.
The backline held firm. Al-Ahli may be struggling in the league, but that is not down to goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais. Here, playing in familiar surroundings in Jeddah, he produced a number of fine saves to deny Takumi Minamino of Liverpool and Celtic’s Kyogo Furuhashi.
And then there were the center-backs. The Al-Nassr pairing of Abdullah Madu and Abdulelah Al-Amri rarely make headlines, but they impressed. Neither used the ball especially well but displayed immense concentration to get a foot in here, a head there as well as some well-timed interceptions. There was never a moment to relax against Japan and the pair never stopped trying to shut down the visitors.
It is easy to read too much into one game, but this was a sign that the balance of power in Asian football may be shifting. That Japan could be six points off the pace so early in Group B was unthinkable just six weeks ago. South Korea may be second in Group A, but have yet to impress playing against three so-called weaker teams at home from West Asia.
Now Saudi Arabia will feel they can beat any team in Asia. The biggest challenge for Renard in the next few days may be to keep his players’ feet on the ground.
Everyone will be looking at the China game and seeing a straightforward three points, but while Saudi Arabia will be strong favorites, it will be a tough game against an opponent determined to build on a first win of the stage, a last-minute 3-2 triumph over Vietnam on Thursday.
This is no time to slip up and waste what was a memorable night in Saudi Arabian football history.
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