Faced with taking on the hosts Russia in the opening game of the tournament this summer, Saudi Arabia will be hoping to cause an upset, and get their campaign off to a strong start. With a group such as theirs, they certainly have the best opportunity they could have hoped for to reach the knockout stages. The Saudis are definitely doing all in their power to ensure they do well this summer, even going as far as loaning nine of their players to La Liga sides in the January transfer window just gone, hoping that this gives them experience at a more competitive level. Currently, the vast majority of Saudi Arabian players play in their domestic league.
The first major international competition Saudi Arabia have qualified for in over ten years, their road to qualification was an interesting one. Finishing top of their group unbeaten, scoring 28 goals and only conceding 4, it was an impressive performance from them. However, since qualifying, they have fired two coaches. Edgardo Bauza was appointed to replace Bert van Marwijk, who, despite leading the nation to their first finals since the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was dismissed in September. Bauza himself was then fired after only five friendlies in charge, nine days before the World Cup draw. His replacement, Juan Antonio Pizzi, now only has a couple of months to get to know his squad ahead of them opening the tournament, and trying to improve on the country’s best ever World Cup performance, where they reached the second round in 1994, before being knocked out by Sweden.
- Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr) – Al-Sahlawi played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s route to Russia, scoring 16 goals in the qualifying stages. The 30 year old striker will be a key man for the Saudi’s this summer, and will need to call on his experience to be a leader in the team.
- Salem Al-Dawsari (Villareal) – 26 year old Al-Dawsari leads the charge of Saudi Arabian players going to La Liga clubs on loan. Snapped up by La Liga side Villareal, the winger has scored 28 goals and has 23 assists for his club Al-Hilal in his 161 appearances for them. To date, he has made 17 appearances for his country, scoring twice. Coach Pizzi will be hoping that Al-Dawsari gains experience playing against a higher level of opposition of the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid, and that he can bring new creative ways to exploit and open up defences with him to Russia this summer.
- Juan Antonio Pizzi – Only recently appointed, Pizzi has limited time to get to know his players before the competition kicks off. However, he has to go into this tournament in a confident manner, having been drawn in the weakest group. If he can get his team to upset the hosts in the opening game, he stands a chance of leading Saudi Arabia to the knockout stage.