Saudi Tour cycling event rebranded as AlUla Tour for 2024 return

Saudi Tour cycling event rebranded as AlUla Tour for 2024 return
Saudi Tour cycling event rebranded as AlUla Tour for 2024 return

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Mancini’s Saudi team face tricky test against Jordan in 2026 World Cup qualifier

Roberto Mancini has been head coach of Saudi Arabia for three months and five games, but Tuesday’s game with Jordan presents his biggest test yet. In fact, it could be said that the road to the 2026 World Cup really starts now.

The Green Falcons make the short trip to Jordan for the second game in the second round of qualification in the knowledge that a second straight win will mean control of Group G and the promise of a place in the third round.

On paper, it is Saudi Arabia’s most difficult game of the second round. Victory will not guarantee the next stage but will remove a lot of pressure and allow the coach to start thinking more in the long term.

It comes just days after the Italian picked up his first victory as coach of Saudi, a 4-0 triumph over Pakistan at home. The result was expected, but needed all the same.

Jordan, ranked 25 places below the visitors at 82, will be a different proposition in Amman. The record between these two nations is evenly matched. Out of 15 meetings — none of which has taken place in qualification for the World Cup — Saudi Arabia have won seven with Jordan winning six.

There are other similarities: Both national teams made big coaching hires in the summer. Mancini, winner of the English Premier League with Manchester City and the European Championships with Italy, arrived and then failed to win any of his first four games before taking on Pakistan, ranked all the way down at 193.

Jordan picked up Hussein Ammouta. The Moroccan has also had plenty of success, winning the Qatar Stars League with Al-Sadd in 2013 before taking Wydad to the African Champions League title in 2017. His appointment was seen as a coup by the Jordan Football Association although fans have largely felt frustrated so far.

Taking over in June, his first game in charge was a 6-0 thrashing by Norway in September, a result quickly followed by a 2-1 loss to Azerbaijan and then a 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Iran.

Then came a 2-2 draw with Iraq and last Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Tajikistan in the opening World Cup qualifier.

With Pakistan on course for bottom spot in the group, many felt that the Central Asians were Jordan’s rivals for second place, assuming that Saudi Arabia finished first. It was a vital game and with a minute to go, Tajikistan scored. Jordan were staring a huge defeat in the face but a 93rd-minute goal from Yazan Al-Naimat broke the hearts of Tajikistan’s players.

It means that Jordan are still on track, although the coach is under even more pressure.

It was not a great performance and Jordan’s defensive weaknesses were there for all to see. Ammouta was criticized for not making any substitutions until after Tajikistan scored in the 89th minute, and overall fans feel that he has been too passive while struggling to introduce a system of play.

He was saved by the talent that is in attack, and the likes of Musa Al-Taamari and Al-Naimat will have to be watched. With such forwards, Jordan can get at the visitors and there should be a full house roaring them on. Following poor recent results, there was not a great demand for tickets, leading the federation to open the doors for free. There are also reports that the playing surface is not up to standard, which may not be ideal for the passing game that Mancini is looking to develop.

There are other concerns for the Italian coach. Saudi Arabia will be missing a number of players through injury. Star Salem Al-Dawsari is out, as are Al-Hilal teammates Nasser Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani, along with Al-Nassr central defender Abdulelah Al-Amri. With Mancini naming a relatively young squad, this was already a new-look Saudi Arabian team even before the absences.

It is hard to read too much from the win over Pakistan, who picked up their first-ever qualification victory in September against Cambodia in the previous round.

Two late goals added a gloss to the scoreline for Saudi but for the most part, the South Asian visitors gave a decent account of themselves and could have scored not long after Saleh Al-Shehri gave the home team an early lead.

The Al-Hilal man looked sharp, despite a lack of minutes for his club, and he is going to be key against Jordan. He scored twice and missed a couple of good chances.

A draw would not be a bad result — there were a couple of those at the same stage in qualification for 2022 that were soon forgotten once the team secured a place in Qatar — but a win would be welcome for many reasons. The road to the World Cup really starts now for Mancini.

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