SAUN­TER­ING SAUDIS

Six points, six goals and none con­ceded af­ter the Green Fal­cons book their place in Asian Cup last-16 fol­low­ing con­fi­dent 2-0 suc­cess over Le­banon

Sport360 - - Front Page - By Matt Mon­aghan @mattmon­aghan360 ✉ mattmon­[email protected]

Saudi Ara­bia main­tained their 100-per-cent record at Asian Cup 2019 and eased into the knock­outs with an im­pos­ing 2-0 win against Le­banon at Al Mak­toum Sta­dium.

Fa­had Al Muwal­lad took ad­van­tage of slap­stick de­fend­ing in the 12th minute to lash home and then Hou­sain Al Mo­gahwi volleyed in on 67 min­utes from close range.

A pair of losses for the Cedars, how­ever, makes pro­gres­sion from Group E a dis­tant prospect. Here is the re­port card:

Good Maa­touk is still magic

‘Func­tional’ is the word you’d use to de­scribe Le­banon upon their Cup re­turn af­ter 19 years away. It is not, how­ever, a phrase you’d im­part on Has­san Maa­touk.

Sadly for the ex-Ara­bian Gulf League favourite, his team-mates just aren’t on the same wave­length. This was ex­em­pli­fied when a dart­ing run ended up with striker Hi­lal El-Helwe screw­ing wide – a minute later, the Saudis went ahead.

Pizzi has Saudis purring

The por­tents are omi­nous for Saudis’ ri­vals. Two Group E matches and two con­fi­dent wins. They last achieved this in 1996, also on Emi­rati soil, when a third – and so far fi­nal – Asian Cup was claimed.

This edi­tion is in the em­bry­onic stage, but the Green Fal­cons and Iran look a cut apart. The for­mer ex­ude con­fi­dence across the park.

Al Shabab winger Hat­tan Ba­he­bri out­played the cel­e­brated Salem Al Dawsari once again, plus got a de­light­ful first as­sist in the UAE through his cross for Al Ahli Jed­dah’s Al Mo­gahwi. It’s now two goals in two matches for Al It­ti­had’s false No9 Al Muwal­lad. An ap­par­ent area of weak­ness ap­pears strong.

Bad Radulovic’s im­me­di­ate job prospects

An un­wel­come hat-trick may be com­pleted at Asian Cup 2019.

Milo­van Ra­je­vac with Thai­land and Bernd Stange at Syria have been sacked af­ter poor early re­sults. Would suc­ces­sive losses for Le­banon – a first for their his­tory at the tour­na­ment – lead to Mon­tene­gro’s Mio­drag Radulovic’s four-year reign com­ing to a pre­ma­ture end?

A re­freshed Le­banon, un­der new lead­er­ship, could thrash North Ko­rea on Thurs­day and still pro­ceed thanks to the 24-team com­pe­ti­tion’s new for­mat which re­wards the fourbest third-placed fin­ish­ers…

Saudi de­fence is up in the air

For a na­tion with the nick­name ‘Green Fal­cons’, the Saudis have looked no­tice­ably un­com­fort­able in the air. Han Kwang-son of North Ko­rea bal­looned a free header at 1-0 be­fore his side im­ploded.

Against Le­banon, Al Nasr-owned Joan Ou­mari and de­fen­sive mid­fielder Felix Michel both wasted op­por­tu­ni­ties when un­marked from first-half set-pieces. The re­tire­ment of 138-cap cen­tre-back Osama Haw­sawi is be­ing felt.

Tac­ti­cal talk­ing point The en­gine room

Saudi boss Juan An­to­nio Pizzi is Ar­gentina-born, but seven years in Span­ish foot­ball – and 22 caps for La Furia Roja – means he is in­cul­cated in his adopted na­tion’s foot­balling tra­di­tions.

Le­banon tried to use their phys­i­cal­ity, in speed through for­mer Ara­bian Gulf League-favourite Maa­touk and size through strap­ping AFC Eskil­stuna an­chor man Felix Michel, to un­set­tle them.

In­stead, cen­tre mid­field­ers Ab­dul­lah Otayf, Al Mo­gahwi and Ab­du­laziz Al Bishi popped the ball around the re­splen­dent, re­de­vel­oped Mak­toum with im­punity in a 4-1-4-1 for­ma­tion. This trio at­tempted 223 passes – Le­banon’s en­tire side recorded 276.

Swoop­ing in: Saudi stars cel­e­brate opener against Le­banon

Joy and de­spair: Saudi Ara­bia mid­fielder Hou­sain Al Mo­gahwi (c) cel­e­brates af­ter mak­ing it 2-0.

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