RIYADH: Herve Renard was smiling as the World Cup draw came to an end on Friday in Doha. Perhaps it was because the Saudi Arabia coach was just happy to be there and free of jet lag after the short journey, unlike some of his counterparts.
Perhaps it is because Group C starts with a barnstormer against Argentina.
Maybe it is because, he may think, that if he can finish above Poland and Mexico then a possible second round tie against his native France is on the cards. Or possibly it is because his team will face some world-class talent like Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski.
There are reasons to be cheerful. As a team in Pot 4, the Green Falcons were always going to get a tough group but this could have been tougher. It couldn’t have been much more exciting, however, not least because it features three teams from different continents.
It starts on November 22 against Argentina, then continues with Poland and ends on the last day of November with what could be a tense tie with Mexico. If all goes well, then the team goes into December and the knockout stages.
It is easier said than done of course but whatever happens, the opener against the two-time champions will be something special, and is what World Cups are all about.
Much will be written about the Saudi defense facing Messi and rightly so. It will be a privilege for this fully domestic-based team to line up against perhaps the best player in history, in what is sure to be his last World Cup. That feeling of privilege should end when the action starts however. Coach Renard, who will be spending the next few months working out how to stop the Albiceleste, will make sure of that.
It is not all about Messi of course, Argentina have plenty of stars elsewhere in the squad and are strong favorites to win the group. Fresh after winning the Copa America, they now have the World Cup in their sights, the last chance for a certain player to win it.
Better balanced than in the past, Argentina are potential champions, the kind of team that Saudi Arabia did not face in their group four years ago as none of Russia, Uruguay and Egypt were ever going to go all the way.
But playing them first up may work out for the best. Opening games can be full of surprises because teams have often not yet found their rhythm.
What also may help, as well as the hope of having a healthy contingent of fans in the stadiums, is that the other three will see them as potentially easy three points. Saudi Arabia should know what to expect in all three games: Aggressive opponents who expect to win.
It may well be that they will be underestimated and Renard is a coach that can use that to his team’s advantage. There is little to zero pressure on the Green Falcons to win against teams who can easily become frustrated if things don’t go their way.
Nobody will expect an open and expansive approach to this game, the onus will be on the South Americans. One thing is for sure, Argentina are going to provide the kind of test that most of these players have never faced.
Realistically, anything from the opening game would be a huge boost to the Asian team and set up the all-important second against Poland. If Saudi Arabia are to get out of the group, then they need a result.
The headlines will focus on Lewandowski and rightly so as the Bayern Munich marksman is a fearsome striker. There are some great forwards in the Saudi Pro League for defenders to face on a weekly basis but none are at the level of the 33-year-old.
Poland may be more than the striker but there is no doubt that he is their spearhead and talisman. Yet Poland will need to be wary of the Saudi fullbacks bombing forward and the trickery of Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad in attack.
Again, the Europeans will see this as a must-win game and whatever the coach may say about not taking it lightly, the expectation at home will be for an easy three points. It is the job of the three-time Asian champions to ensure that it is anything but, and we can safely say that there will be opportunities to score in this game. They will have to be taken.
And that leaves Mexico, the highest ranked of the teams in Pot Two but not too much should be read into that. El Tri have made the last seven second rounds at the World Cup only to go no further. In qualification, they did not impress, scoring just 17 goals in 14 games. They took just two points out of a possible 12 in the four games against fellow qualifiers Canada, who won the group, and the US.
The squad does not possess the kind of standout star that Argentina and Poland have — though striker Raul Jimenez is one of the top marksmen in the English Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Napoli winger Hirving Lozano should need no introduction, and Atletico Madrid midfielder Hector Herrera is nearing a century of caps.
There is a lot of experience and talent in the team but it sometimes feels less than the sum of its parts. How both teams approach that game will depend to an extent on what happens in the previous two.
There are still more than seven months to go before it all kicks off and a lot of work to be done. For now, however, it does not need to be said that Saudi Arabia have a tough group — that was inevitable — but fans, players and officials should relish what looks to be a very exciting one.
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