Last month’s defeat to Japannot only cost the Socceroos top spot in Group B of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, but also the mantle of Asia’s form team. Both were transferred to Saudi Arabia, who have arrived in Sydney ahead of Thursday’s crunch clash three points clear and on a run of eight successive victories on the road to Qatar. No wonder then the Green Falcons are soaring with self-belief.
“We have beaten stronger teams than Australia, and with the current group of players we are able to return from there with full points,” said Saudi defender Ahmed Sharahili on Sunday. There is still an understanding that this is the toughest test of the year but after the win over Japan last month, five days before the Samurai Blue headed back home to beat the Socceroos, a first victory over Australia for 24 years and the first outside Riyadh really would really be something to celebrate.
It would also put the visitors in a commanding position. Saudi Arabia have four wins from four in the final round of qualification and, in a group where just the top two are guaranteed a World Cup spot, they are three points clear of Australia and six above Oman and Japan. Another win takes the west Asian nation to 15 from five, just four points off their total tally of 19 achieved in 10 games in qualification for the 2018 World Cup – a haul big enough to finish second above Australia on goal difference and leave the third-placed team needing heroics from Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak to get past Syria and Honduras in the play-offs. In short, a ninth successive win for Saudi Arabia puts one green-socked foot in Qatar.
Despite the improved form – even if seven out of eight wins have come in Riyadh or Jeddah – it’s a big ask given Australia will finally return home to play for the first time in 763 days. The Saudis have lost all three of their past games in Australia and won just one out of eight in total – and that game was in Riyadh at the 1997 Confederations Cup. History is not on their side.
The unflappable Hervé Renard is, however, and he is why this is a different team to the one brought to Adelaide by Bert van Marwijk over four years ago. Renard has made a real difference since taking over in July 2019. The Saudi federation had their eyes on the Frenchman for some time after he had proven his worth by winning the African Cup of Nations with two different teams: Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast three years later.
It has taken Renard a little time to get to grips with his team. But he has made changes, not so much in personnel but more in terms of attitude, game management and organisation, and there is now a new intensity in a team that has rarely been known for such a quality. The win over Japan was deserved, just. The Samurai Blue were sloppier than usual and the Saudis had the clinical edge in Jeddah, punishing the visitors for their mistakes and staying tight at the back. The win over China five days later was a little different – the kind of roller-coaster, tense and thrilling affairs played in front of big and excited crowds that neutrals want from qualifiers.
The results were achieved without the team’s best player and, according to some pundits in Riyadh and Jeddah, the best in Asia at the moment. Salem Al-Dawsari scored in Melbourne in qualification for the 2014 World Cup and repeated the feat in Adelaide on the road to Russia. A recent foot injury has seemingly done little to stop him driving Al-Hilal to next month’s AFC Champions League final. This intelligent wide midfielder floats around the backline and has a habit of popping up to score delightful goals or thread the perfect through pass. With clubmate and equally experienced Salman Al-Faraj behind him, there is real quality in possession. Fawad Al-Muwallad can blow hot and cold but the speedy winger is a massive handful on his day and Saudi Arabia have two of the best full-backs in Asia who both love getting forward.
One of those is among the absentees however. Left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani is out, as is central defender Abdullah Madu. The biggest hole however is in the shape of Mohammed Al-Owais. The goalkeeper was injured against China and minutes later, a howler from replacement Fawaz Al-Qarni let Team Dragon back into the game. The Socceroos will surely be looking to test the understudy as soon and as often as possible. There is also the perennial issue of the main striker in the usual 4-2-3-1 formation. With highly-paid imports dominating the local league, options are thin on the ground. Saleh Al-Shehri has looked decent so far but Firas Al-Buraikan has many fans back home and impressed for the Under-23 team in qualification for the 2022 Asian Cup last week.
Succeeding with these injuries would make a good result even better. Thursday is a real chance for Saudi Arabia to make it nine in a row, improve a poor record against Australia and, most importantly of all, to move closer to the 2022 World Cup.