(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s early exit from this year’s World Cup was not a huge surprise given their recent pedigree on the global stage but at the Asian Cup their fans have reason to expect much, much better.
The Green Falcons were once a dominant force in Asian football and reached the final in six of seven tournaments from 1984 to 2007, winning the continental title three times including back-to-back triumphs in 1984 and 1988.
The days when they were one of the major powers in the region are a fading memory now, though, and in the last two versions of the Asian Cup they have failed to progress from their group.
Juan Antonio Pizzi led them in Russia and, despite a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the hosts in their opener, the Argentine kept his job after his team rebounded to beat Egypt in their final match.
The Saudis have played five friendlies since then, losing 2-0 to Brazil in Riyadh but otherwise remained unbeaten with their sole victory coming against southern neighbours Yemen.
“The level of the opposing teams varied, which has had a positive effect on us as players,” defender Omar Hawsawi said last week.
“Our team includes young and experienced players, and we will work together for one goal…”
There are, for those who hold no truck with such things, at least a couple of omens that hint at Saudi success in the Jan. 5-Feb. 1 tournament across the border in the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia’s third and last title came in 1996 when the UAE last hosted the tournament and certainly the expected hot, humid conditions are similar to those they are used to playing in at home.
In addition, their only Asian Cup finals victory in six matches since they lost the 2007 final to Iraq was the 4-1 thrashing they doled out to North Korea in Melbourne in 2015.
That should give them huge confidence when they take on the North Koreans in their first match in Group E on Jan. 8 before they move on to face Lebanon and Qatar.
Experienced central defender Hawsawi will help provide the foundation but the emphasis will be on quick-breaking attack with wingers Yahya Al Shehri and Fahad Al Muwallad expected to provide the opportunities up front.
Salman Al Faraj quietly drove Saudi Arabia’s midfield in Russia and he is likely to be key to Pizzi’s plans if the 29-year-old can recover from a thigh injury which has restricted his training.
Pizzi will be confident of getting the Saudis out of the group stage for the first time in more than a decade given the relative weakness of the expanded 24-team field at this edition of the Asian Cup.
Anything less would certainly mean the axe from the notoriously sack-happy Saudi federation and the man who led Chile to their 2016 Copa America triumph is clearly trying to keep everything in perspective.
“My message to everyone is to enjoy the championship,” Pizzi told the federation website.
“Let’s all remember that the Asian Cup is a football tournament, and we deserve to take part in this event.
“We are ambitious to show an outstanding level and we have had a good preparation process.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Sudipto Ganguly)