Premier League players Tonali and Zaniolo leave Italy’s training camp amid betting inquiry

Premier League players Tonali and Zaniolo leave Italy’s training camp amid betting inquiry
Premier League players Tonali and Zaniolo leave Italy’s training camp amid betting inquiry

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - There are plenty connections between Saudi Arabia and Portugal in terms of high-profile players and coaches in the Roshn Saudi League and national team coach Roberto Mancini will need a little Portuguese inspiration on Friday.

The Green Falcons have World Cup qualifiers and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in the coming weeks and months and the friendly against Nigeria in the Algarve is a great chance to assess the current state of the West Asian powerhouse.

While there are big competitive games to come, the Italian, appointed in August to replace Herve Renard, would love to get a good result even as he will appreciate the tough test that Nigeria will provide.

If January’s Gulf Cup in Iraq is taken out of the equation — as Saudi Arabia fielded a young team and Renard did not travel — then there have been six straight defeats since that win over Argentina at the World Cup. Even if that regional tournament is included, it is still eight losses from nine with only Yemen failing to take victory.

The last four defeats have all come in friendlies. The first two were at the hands of Venezuela and Bolivia in March, after which Renard left, and then there were losses to Costa Rica and South Korea in September in Newcastle, Mancini’s first two games.

The man who led Italy to the 2020 European Championship knew when he arrived in Riyadh that he had little time to work with the team before the start of World Cup qualification in November and then the Asian Cup in January.

That does not mean that there is immediate pressure on the former Manchester City manager who has only just arrived, and understandably needs time to make a difference, but a change of result and narrative would be welcome for him, the fans, players and the media.

It is not going to be easy, and not just because Nigeria are ranked 40 in the world, 17 places above Saudi Arabia, and coming off the back of three wins in qualification for the 2023 African Cup of Nations which will take place in January. The Super Eagles are packed with talent from the top tiers of European football and present formidable opposition.

Chances will need to be taken. You do not need to have Mancini’s experience and expertise to know that the three-time Asian Champions could be more prolific in front of goal. There have been just four scored in the last six games. It is not just that the strikers have not been finding the back of the net but that there have not been enough chances of quality created.

The good news is that Salem Al-Dawsari is fit and in increasingly fine form. Despite the presence of stars such as Neymar, Ruben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Malcom at Al-Hilal, the 32-year-old is the joint-third top scorer in the league with six goals, has been creating chances for his teammates, and performed impressively in his club’s last three games.

Mancini, who has called up 31 players for the trip to Portugal, which also features a game against Mali on Tuesday, would be well-advised to focus on getting the best out of the talented Al-Dawsari.

There is not much time to experiment with these two games being the last before next month’s World Cup qualifiers against the winner of Cambodia and Pakistan’s playoff, and then Jordan. Mancini needs to find his strongest team.

Firas Al-Buraikan has done enough at home to show that he is currently the most reliable Saudi Arabian scorer and has been settling in well at Al-Ahli. Al-Nassr’s Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Sultan Al-Ghannam have been in fine form of late, as have the team, and creating chances for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. In short, there are players performing at good levels in what is an increasingly strong league, including Al-Hilal’s defender Saud Abdulhamid.

If the attacking players look in good form domestically, the same cannot be said for the goalkeepers as they are not playing at all.

Nawaf Al-Aqidi has pulled out of the squad due to a shoulder injury. The Al-Nassr shotstopper is the only number one who has been playing regular club football this season.

The others in the squad — Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), replacement Mohammed Al-Rubaei (Al-Ahli), Raghed Al-Najjar (Al-Nassr) and young prospect Hamed Yousef Al-Shanqiti (Al-Shabab) — have sat on the sidelines watching foreign goalkeepers start for their clubs.

Mancini can do little about this but with the lack of goals at the moment, the Italian needs to ensure that as few chances as possible are given away. And with videos released of him working his players very hard in training, it could well be that he is going to trust fitness, organization and hard work to make a difference. The goalkeeping situation may not turn out to be a problem — Al-Owais had a fine World Cup despite not being first choice for his club — but it is not ideal.

Ideal in Portugal would be a win against quality and experienced opposition but that is a tough ask. Good would be a draw that ends the losing streak but the most important outcome would be a sense that the team is starting to progress under the new coach. There are more important tests to come.

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