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Saudi Arabia get Arabian Gulf Cup campaign off to perfect start with win over Yemen

BASRA: Saudi Arabia defeated Yemen 2-0 in their opening game of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup on Friday to move top of Group A.

First half goals, and first international goals, from debutants Sumayhan Al-Nabit and Musab Al-Juwayr put the three-time winners in the driving seat at Basra International Stadium and that is where they stayed. It wasn’t always comfortable for the victors but coach Saad Al-Shehri knows getting points on the board early in tournaments is crucial. He also knows that there will be tougher tests to come against the hosts Iraq and Oman.

With Al-Shehri taking an inexperienced and untested squad to Iraq –in many ways, a ‘B’ team –, it was always going to be difficult for this experimental Green Falcons line-up to hit the heights of November when the full-strength side defeated Argentina at the World Cup. It was no surprise that the youngsters lacked a little cohesion in the early stages but as the minutes ticked over, Saudi Arabia put some good moves together. The signs are promising.

Yemen did their bit too. Perhaps buoyed by hosts Iraq being held to a 0-0 draw by Oman earlier in the day, the Reds started brightly and had a great chance to open the scoring in the tenth minute. Ahmed Maher found himself unmarked near the penalty spot as the ball came in from the left but his first time shot was well-saved by Nawaf Al-Aqidi. It was a missed opportunity that the Reds were always likely to regret and there was a warning five minutes later as Turki Al-Ammar, one of the few players with senior appearances under his belt, shot straight at the goalkeeper from just inside the area.

It didn’t matter as the Greens were in front after 18 minutes and in some style. There seemed to be no danger when Al-Nabit collected the ball outside the area in a central position. Yet the Yemen defence was slow to react which gave the Al-Taawoun midfielder time to pick his spot and bend a delicious shot –via the post – into the bottom left-hand corner of the Yemen net, just beyond the hand of Salem Al Harsh.

The goal rocked Yemen and just after the half-hour, Al-Nabit went down in the area under a challenge from Emad Al-Godaimah and the referee pointed to the spot with VAR giving its agreement. Up stepped Al-Hilal’s Al-Juwayr to blast the ball high into the left side of the net to give the goalkeeper no chance.  From then it really was an uphill struggle for Yemen who had, heading into this contest, lost 24 of their 30 games at the tournament and never tasted victory. 

Just three minutes before the break however Yemen should have pulled a goal back. Omar Al-Dahi broke into the left side of the area. His first shot was blocked by Al-Aqidi but the forward was given another bite of the cherry and, once again, the Al-Nassr goalkeeper was equal to the task to preserve his team’s two goal lead.

Yemen should have reduced the deficit just before the hour. A long ball from deep caused problems for the Saudi Arabia defence and Maher was able to advancem skipping past Al-Aqidi who had come out of the box, but from the left corner of the area, the striker pulled his shot wide of the post. 

Both teams kept pushing forward with both goalkeepers called into action more than once in the latter stages. Neither side was able to add to the scoreline however. Al-Shehri will be pleased with the win against an energetic and determined opponent and will have taken positives ahead into Monday’s game.

That is sure to be a massive test for these youngsters. Iraq are on home soil and, as well as a passionate crowd, have selected an experienced and talented squad. A win would put the Falcons into the last four and given the circumstances, such a result would be almost as impressive as beating Argentina. Yemen, meanwhile, go on to face Oman.

The top two from each of the four-team groups progress to the semi-finals with the final game taking place on Jan. 19.

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