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 Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia's 1-1 draw with Ukraine
 ( Published On Sunday 1 April 2018, 16 Rajab 1439, Time: 10:43)

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia's 1-1 draw with Ukraine


MARBELLA: Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first official match in charge of Saudi Arabia, a 1-1 draw against Ukraine on Friday night, provided a glimpse of the progress the Argentine coach has made since taking the national team reins in late November. It also showed what still needs to be done with less than 12 weeks to go until the World Cup curtain-raiser against hosts Russia. We take a look at five talking points to emerge from the game in Spain.


Tiki-Taka Saudi Style

During this week’s training sessions at the Marbella Football Center, Pizzi has been encouraging his players to be brave and adopt a tiki-taka style of play. His message has clearly been translated accurately as the Green Falcons, although on the back foot for much of the first half, defended calmly, playing themselves out of trouble through a series of short passes. The movement was constant, with Abdullah Al-Otayf providing the pivot in front of the defense and Yahia Al-Shehri and Taiseer Al-Jassam offering options further upfield. A couple of times players took one touch too many and conceded possession, but while further improvement is clearly required this was a marked step forward compared with performances under previous coach Edgardo Bauza.


The Riyadh Modric

Those inside the Saudi camp refer to Abdullah Ibrahim Otayf as the Green Falcons’ equivalent to Luka Modric and it is clear Pizzi trusts the Al-Hilal midfielder to dictate his team’s tempo. One of only five players to play 90 minutes, the 25-year-old sat in front of a back four, consistently willing to drop deep, collect the ball and look to release Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad on the flanks. Otayf spent a period of his playing career in Portugal before joining the Saudi league champions and looked comfortable in the Spanish rain, never panicking and happy to receive a pass even in tight spaces. When he did occasionally overhit a cross-field pass or was deemed to have delayed a through-ball, Pizzi was encouraging from the sidelines, urging him to persist.


If Your Spanish Coach Can’t Speak Arabic, Teach Your Players Spanish

Language problems are often an issue in Gulf football. Several illustrious coaches have tried and failed to successfully coach a team of Arabic-speaking players through a translator. Pizzi, however, is the first to benefit from some of his squad being forced to learn his native language. With Al-Dawsari, Al-Muwallad and Al-Shehri all having been employed by teams in La Liga since January, they have managed to pick up a little Spanish. So while the Argentine coach settled for a handshake and arm around the shoulder for the likes of Yasir Al-Shahrani, he was able to communicate better with his Spain-based contingent, whispering advice in their ears mid-match and giving feedback in more detail when they were substituted as the game drew on.


Sharpness No Issue

Language issues aside, there had been concern that the Spain-based players would be lacking match fitness, given that none of them has featured for their respective teams in La Liga. Villarreal’s Al-Dawsari, despite missing a great opportunity in the second half after being played clean through by Mohammed Al-Sahlawi, generally looked sharp and lasted into added time. Al-Shehri, of Leganés, was solid if unspectacular, holding the ball up well and refusing to be dominated by the more physical Ukrainians. And for a player who has not played a competitive minute of football in 2018, Al-Muwallad took his goal with confidence, smashing it into the top corner to even the score. Pizzi said he is happy with their level of fitness and believes they have improved merely by training with their new teams.


Save a Seat For Al-Mosailem

Pizzi has brought four goalkeepers to Spain, so Yasser Al-Mosailem knew he had to perform on Friday night. An imposing figure at 6ft 2in, he showed composure in the air when Ukraine’s Yehven Konoplyanka tried to pick out his attackers from the left wing and, despite the rain lashing down, he held almost everything that came at him. Al-Mosailem was heralded by some observers as man of the match, and his excellent reflex-save in added time ensured his side earned the draw they deserved. Although Pizzi insisted nothing is decided yet and refused to confirm the Al-Ahli stopper will go to Russia, on the back of this performance he can be confident of his place on the plane. – AN

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