RIYADH: The last international break before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Doha on Nov. 20 has just wrapped with the four Arab qualifiers of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Tunisia continuing to have mixed results in what could be their final warm-up matches.
Meanwhile, Egypt, who will miss out on the party in Qatar, are already looking ahead to the future.
Here are five things learned from the latest action.
1. If Saudi Arabia can score, they have a chance in Qatar
An obvious point, but the 0-0 draw with the US in Spain did mean a fourth straight friendly without a goal for the Green Falcons. However, the performance was an improvement on the 0-0 draw with Ecuador on Friday, and the two 1-0 losses to Colombia and Venezuela in June.
The defense prevented the US, with plenty of talented players, from creating clear chances and it was a hard-working display all around. The Saudis did not create too many clear-cut scoring opportunities, but there was an improvement in their overall attacking display.
None of the chances that did come along were taken and while there are absences such as Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj that make a difference, it is a concern.
Coach Herve Renard does not have a Robert Lewandowski or a Lionel Messi to score at will, and he needs his stars fit if there is to be a chance against Argentina, Poland, and Mexico.
Taken in isolation, however, and not after three blank returns, the result and the performance against the Americans were encouraging and with more preparation games to come (unlike some other teams at the World Cup) there is still a little time to get firing in an offensive sense.
2. It could have been worse for Tunisia
Losing to Brazil is no disgrace for any team but it is never nice to be hit with a 5-1 defeat. However, Tunisia were simply blown away by the in-form five-time champions.
There was much to cheer about in the 18th minute as Montassar Talbi equalized Raphinha’s opener but within seconds, Richarlison had restored the lead and soon after Neymar scored from the spot. By 40 minutes it was 4-1 and when Dylan Bronn was red carded before the break, it looked really bleak for the Carthage Eagles.
Brazil eased off in the second half and it was a chastening experience for Tunisia who were coming off the back of some positive results of late.
They had their moments going forward and saw a goal disallowed which could have changed things but, in the end, Brazil were just too good. At least it is unlikely that the North Africans will face such a talented team in Qatar even against defending champions France, or Denmark and Australia.
3. Qatar improve against Chile but need more
After losing to Canada in a poor performance last week, Qatar improved to draw 2-2 with Chile. Their first-half performance was a continuation of the previous match, lacking energy, invention, and focus as Alexis Sanchez’s well-worked goal gave the South Americans a deserved lead at the break.
In the second half, Qatar took advantage of a defensive mistake to equalize through Akram Afif and then a thunderbolt from Hassan Al-Haydos gave them a lead that they could not hang on to.
At this stage of preparation, it was another concerning performance overall.
This is not the well-drilled and fluid Qatar team that strolled to the 2019 Asian Cup title. That is now three poor halves out of four and the goals against Chile came from mistakes and a moment of brilliance rather than sustained pressure.
It could be that the Maroons are so focused on the tournament and games against Ecuador, Senegal, and the Netherlands that are less than two months away that it is hard to perform in friendlies, but it is time to find the old intensity.
4. Morocco and Ziyech moving forward
The second game in charge for coach Walid Regragui ended in a 0-0 draw with Paraguay but the tactician will not be too concerned as his team did enough to win but just could not quite find the goal in a high-tempo clash.
At the back, the defense was tested by the lively Miguel Almiron of Newcastle United but held firm to keep a second clean sheet in four days following their 2-0 win over Chile.
Hakim Ziyech, recalled to the side after his fall-out with the previous coach, was the standout. The Chelsea winger hit the inside of the post with a curling shot from outside the area and put a couple of chances on a plate for team-mates. He also created Ryan Mmaee’s goal that was narrowly ruled out for offside.
Overall, it was a fine performance from the Atlas Lions who are feeling much better about their national team than a couple of months ago and will be looking forward to Belgium, Croatia, and Canada.
5. Egypt looking good for 2026
It cannot be easy for Egypt as they watch their rivals prepare for the first World Cup in the region, but fans are feeling happier than before.
New coach Rui Vitoria has promised that there will be qualification for the 2026 tournament and while it is obviously very early days, the signs are good with two 3-0 wins in the first two games in charge for the Portuguese boss.
Supporters were delighted to see Mohamed Salah score twice in the first win over Niger and while the Liverpool man withdrew from the second game, the same score line was recorded against Liberia. There are tougher tests to come but it seems that a small corner has been turned.
It has been a roller-coaster year for the national team with penalty shootout defeats in the Africa Cup of Nations final and World Cup qualification under Carlos Queiroz and a new coach Ehab Galal, who was quickly fired after a 4-1 loss to South Korea in June.
Some stability and progress are needed and while this is just a start, it is a good one. Missing out on the 2022 World Cup was tough to take but the road to 2026 has already begun.
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