Eddie Howe: No need to panic over lack of forward signings

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A sell-out crowd will see if Saudi Arabia can defeat Egypt in the final of the 2022 Arab Cup U-20 Championships on Sunday and become the first team in the tournament’s history to win successive titles.

It is not only a battle between two giants of the Arab world — one from Asia, one from Africa — but between two talented young players who have already lit up the tournament.

All 20,000 tickets were quickly sold in the Saudi city of Abha once the semi-finals were negotiated by the host nation.

Wednesday’s clash was a stroll in the park for the young Green Falcons as they thrashed Palestine 5-0.

Saudi Arabia took maximum points from the group stage, which was contested by 18 teams from two continents. It included a 4-1 defeat against what was seen as a strong Iraqi team.

The signs, then, are good, and even the quarter-final penalty shootout win over Yemen can be seen as evidence that the Saudi team can deliver when the pressure is on.

The victory over Palestine was a performance from a team that is in form and full of confidence.

After a slow start, Saudi Arabia took control after 36 minutes as Mohammed Sulaiman opened the scoring.

Then two goals from Abdullah Radif put the home team firmly in control, and faint hopes of a comeback from Palestine were quashed when Abdulaziz Al-Aliwa and Saleh Al-Rahmani got in on the act.

There are no injuries for coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi to deal with, though midfielder Abdullah Al-Zaid will be absent through suspension.

“We know that we will face a tough test against Egypt,” said Al-Mohammadi, who has seen his team have the best offensive and defensive record in the tournament, with 11 goals scored and just one conceded.

“They have done well to get to the final, and so have we. It should be a good game between two strong teams, and we know that we have to prepare to be at our best.”

The boss will be looking to Radif, whose brace against Algeria took his tally to six for the tournament, and the Al-Hilal star has given his club coach Ramon Diaz a reminder that there is talent in the squad.

For now, however, the 19-year-old is focused on Egypt, who know they need to stop the star if they are to avenge their 3-2 loss against Saudi Arabia in the semi-final of the 2021 edition.

“Saudi Arabia have some very good players and are a strong team,” said Egypt coach Mahmoud Gaber. “But in a final, you are always going to face tough opposition, and we are looking forward to the challenge.”

Egypt also won their group by winning both their games, and then faced their first major scare when they had to come from a goal down to defeat Morocco 2-1 in the quarter-finals.

A 3-1 win over another North African giant, Algeria, secured a first-ever place in a final after losing in the last four on the last two occasions.

“We have improved as the tournament has progressed, and the team is gaining experience and knows more about how to control the rhythm of the game,” said Gaber. “We are also improving in terms of set pieces, and we are looking forward to the challenge.”

While Saudi Arabia have Radif, Egypt possess a star of their own in Salah Basha. The 19-year-old forward plays his club football for Udinese, joining the Italian club in 2018 from Al-Ahly, and got on the scoresheet against Morocco and Algeria. 

“He is a very good player. He does well when he is in the penalty area. If we are on the attacking side, he will score,” said Gaber.

The player with an Italian mother and Egyptian father has reportedly caught the attention of senior national team coach Rui Vitoria, who could move to give the youngster a full international cap sooner rather than later to ensure that he chooses to represent the Pharaohs rather than the Azzurri.

For now, however, the focus is on Saudi Arabia. The destination of the Arab U-20 Cup may be determined by which star, the Saudi or the Egyptian, shines brightest.

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