By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia make their return to the finals of the World Cup for the first time since Germany in 2006 in a situation that is all too familiar to those who know the game in the Gulf state.
Juan Antonio Pizzi will lead the Green Falcons into their opening match in Group A of the 2018 tournament but he is removed by some distance from the coaching team that earned Saudi Arabia their spot at the finals.
It was Dutchman Bert van Marwijk who managed to build a side that was much stronger than the sum of its parts and ended a decade of disappointment for Saudi Arabia to return the team to the upper levels of the Asian game.
Habitual hirers and firers of coaches, Saudi Arabia will be appearing at the finals for the fifth time, with their best performance coming on their debut in 1994 when they reached the last 16.
Since they last appeared at the World Cup finals, though, Saudi Arabia have lost their place among the leading lights of the continent, exiting the Asian Cup in the group phase in both 2011 and 2015 and missing out on the last two World Cups.
Van Marwijk, however, harnessed the talent that had seen club sides such as Al Hilal and Al Ahli impress in Asian competition and fashioned a team capable of finally returning to the World Cup.
The departure of the Dutchman at the end of his two-year contract in September 2017 saw Edgardo Bauza take over for a short-lived, three-game spell before Argentina-born former Spain international Pizzi was put in place in late November.
With little more than six months to work with the team, the former Chile coach has been set a tough task — one made more demanding by a decision to send several key players on loan to Spanish clubs in the lead-up to the finals.
Yahya Al Shehri, Fahad Al Muwallad and Salem Al Dawsari were among a group of players who were farmed out to La Liga sides in January, only to spend almost all of their loan periods on the sidelines.
A lack of match sharpness for the team’s most potent attacking trio could have a detrimental effect on a side already lacking experience of the biggest occasions, and few come bigger than their opener against hosts Russia in Moscow on June 14.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)