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5 things to look out for in Saudi Arabia’s World Cup Qualifier against China in Sharjah

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia will take on China in the penultimate qualifier in the group stage of qualification for the 2022 World Cup. A win will secure a place in Qatar for Saudi Arabia with a game to spare. There are plenty of talking points and below are just five.

 1. This may be the easiest away game against China that Saudi Arabia ever have

This is not to say it will be easy but all the signs are good. First, instead of a trip to Beijing in front of 60,000 fans (or a longer and more difficult journey to Kunming, which sits 2,000 meters above sea level), there is a short ride to Sharjah — the third-country venue named due to China’s travel restrictions — and a smattering of home fans. This removes a lot of the problems from the tie. 

There’s more. China have won only one game of the eight so far, against bottom team Vietnam, and are sorely low on confidence. Team Dragon are also understrength. Much was made of the country naturalising a number of talented Brazilian attacking players to improve their chances of a second World Cup appearance.

The four who were originally selected for this trip have all pulled out as they can’t or won’t travel to the Dubai training camp to perform the necessary physical tests. Not just that but Wu Lei, by far the team’s top scorer, has been left with Espanyol in Spain to focus on his club form. The remaining foreign-based player, Li Lei of Grasshoppers in Zurich, is now injured. It leaves China short in attack and it is not surprising the team are now focusing on preparing for the 2023 Asian Cup that they are hosting.

2. The return of talisman Salman Al-Faraj

It is all falling into place for the Green Falcons: Just one win away from a sixth World Cup. In fact, even a win may not be necessary. If Australia lose to Japan in a game that will finish before Herve Renard’s men take the pitch then the place in Qatar is secure. Whatever result Australia get against Japan, Saudi Arabia just need to match it. And even if the worst happens then there is another chance next week. 

The focus on Thursday should then be on keeping calm and composed against a team that will be reactive, get men behind the ball and look to set pieces. There is no need to panic if China take an early lead or the scoreline is all square after an hour. Patience is key. The return of Salman Al-Faraj, back in the team after being out through injury last time, is key.

The 32-year-old is not only cool on the ball, making space and chances, but his whole presence reduces nerves and tension among team-mates. The captain is back and his timing is perfect.

3. Concentration is key for the defense and goalkeeper

There are some injuries in defense with Ali Al-Bulaihi a big miss in the middle as well as right-back Sultan Al-Ghanam. Until now, coach Renard has done well with handling injury issues and the squad has proven to be deep enough, at least in Asia.

Whatever happens, China are unlikely to come racing out of the blocks and take the game to the away team — they are low on attacking talent, confidence and form. Saudi Arabia are going to have plenty of possession and the men in red will look to hit on the counter. It means that the defenders are going to have to stay on their toes and not make any mistakes. 

Then there is the goalkeeping issue. Mohammed Al-Owais has barely put a glove wrong on the road to Qatar and his injury in the first match against China showed how important he is. Yet he lacks playing time for his club with just one league game for Al-Hilal since joining the club in January.

The team and the coach need the 30-year-old to be at his best on Thursday. He may not have much to do but he is going to have something to save. He needs to be switched on.

4. Renard will welcome the fit-again Firas Al-Buraikan 

Saudi Arabia don’t have many strikers playing and scoring regularly at club level so it is necessary that both Saad Al-Shehri and Firas Al-Buraikan are at their best. The latter missed joining up with the team’s training camp in Abu Dhabi as he was sick. There were hopes that it isn’t COVID-19 — and it doesn’t seem to be — and that he will recover in time for the big game. The Al-Fateh forward has made a difference already in this campaign, whether starting or coming off the bench. It is not just about the vital goals but the work rate and the defending from the front. The same can be said of Al-Shehri. 

Coach Renard will hope that the illness does nothing more than ensure that Al-Shehri starts in Sharjah and that Al-Buraikan is on the bench. Both are going to be needed. 

5. There’s always Australia anyway

Nobody wants to go into the final game of the group needing a result against Australia, but it is not a completely terrifying prospect. The Socceroos started well with three straight wins but then have won just once in the following five, a run that also included draws against Saudi Arabia, Oman and China.

The worst-case scenario for the Falcons will be that they need a draw against a team that are not in great form but could be without their coach as Graham Arnold currently has COVID-19. The virus has also claimed players and due to that and other reasons, Australia are without their first-choice midfield, with the likes of Aaron Mooy,Tom Rogic and Jackson Irvine all out. 

Even at full-strength, this Socceroos team don’t have the same star power as in the past, with few of their best in top European leagues, and they are simply not as formidable as before. Saudi Arabia would be able to be confident of doing the job in front of their home fans in Jeddah next Tuesday, but it is better to end proceedings before that.

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