BASRA: On Thursday, for the second time in a little over a month, Saudi Arabia exited an international tournament in the first round and, for the second time, there was more to evaluate and judge than simply the results.
This latest exit was from the Arabian Gulf Cup, not the World Cup, the location was Iraq instead of Qatar, and the opposition were not Argentina, Mexico and Poland but Iraq, Oman and Yemen. Despite the disappointment at failing to progress, though, Saudi Arabia should take with them plenty of positives from the experience.
It might take some time for them to appreciate this, however, after a 2-1 defeat by Oman doomed them to third place in Group A, with just three points from three games, and a journey home.
Requiring victory over the men from Muscat to be certain of a place in the last four, this new-look Saudi side pushed the Reds all the way. They created enough chances to win but just could not make them count.
Rabia Al-Alawi put Oman ahead at Al-Minaa Olympic Stadium in Basra just after the half-hour mark but the impressive Turki Al-Ammar struck soon after to ensure the teams went in level at the break. Oman snatched victory with six minutes remaining thanks to a glorious goal from Harib Al-Saadi.
In the other game in Group A, tournament hosts Iraq defeated Yemen 5-0 to secure top spot and book their place in the final four. The Iraqis took the lead in the first half thanks to a looping header from Mustafa Nadhim. Amjed Attwan and Hussein Ali struck in the second half, and Ayman Hussein added a brace to send fans at Basra International Stadium wild with delight.
Iraq topped the group with seven points. Oman finished with the same number but a lesser goal difference. Yemen finished bottom of the group, having lost all three of their games.
Saudi coach Saad Al-Shehri’s men knew that only victory would do and so they pushed forward at every opportunity. Just after the midway point of the first half, Al-Ammar got on the end of a cross from Sumayhan Al-Nabit but could not quite steer the ball past Ibrahim Al-Mukhaini in the Oman goal, who was to have a fine game.
The same combination of players was in action a few minutes later, when Al-Ammar chested the ball down just outside the area and then forced another save from the goalkeeper.
Seconds later, in the 34th minute, Oman, who only needed a point to progress, took the lead with a well-worked goal. Jameel Al-Yahmadi was given a little too much space on the right, enough for him to take his time and send a dangerous, low cross to the near post where Al-Alawi got in front of Ziyad Al-Sahafi to direct the ball high into the top corner past a diving Nawaf Al-Aqidi. The video assistant referee checked for offside but the goal stood.
Saudi Arabia knew what they had to do; they needed two goals. And after 41 minutes, they got one of them. Mohammed Maran won the ball in the area and his cross bounced off the goalkeeper into the path of Al-Nabit, who found Al-Ammar just inside the six-yard box. The busy Al-Shabab star coolly side-footed the ball home.
This put a spring in the step of the Saudis. Maran forced a good save with a low shot from outside the area and, soon after, Al-Ammar did the same from close range. Suddenly, Oman were under pressure and hoping for the half-time whistle.
The Reds should have retaken the lead early in the second half, when Issam Al-Sabhi broke free of the defense. With just the goalkeeper to beat, he opted to lob the ball from just inside the area but his effort was high. Within seconds, Al-Ammar forced a fine save with a fierce shot. After 57 minutes Al-Nabit also forced a save but this time, Al-Mukhaini spilled the low attempt and was relieved to see the ball go out of play for a corner. Later, from another corner, Maran’s fine near-post header had the goalkeeper flying through the air to deny a certain goal.
At the other end, there was nothing Al-Aqidi could do about Oman’s winner. Al-Saadi collected the ball outside the area and sent an unstoppable shot into the top corner. And that was that.
Iraq and Oman will learn who their semi-final opponents are on Friday, when Bahrain face Kuwait and Qatar take on the UAE in Group B. The final will take place next Thursday.
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