In world football, it’s the ultimate game: playing Brazil. The five-times world champions have long been considered the spiritual owners of the game and are ranked third in the world behind only Belgium and world champions France. On Friday, Saudi Arabia host Brazil in a friendly in Riyadh, but Brazil’s assistant coach Cleber Xavier has called the Falcons interesting opponents.
“It is a team that we respect,” Xavier, who has worked as Tite’s assistant since 2001, told Arab News. “For us, it is a team that we have to pay attention to. We can’t be surprised. Each and every game more, we have that notion of respect for the opponent. We played against the United States, which is a new team, a team in transition, a team working for the Olympic Games. This Saudi Arabia is more experienced.”
In September, Brazil defeated the Americans 2-0 in New Jersey with goals before the break from Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino and talisman Neymar to seal a routine win. The Brazilians went on to trash El Salvador 5-0 four days later in Washington DC with Neymar once more scoring from the penalty spot as the Seleção began a rebuilding process after the World Cup in Russia where they didn’t live up to their favourites role, exiting the tournament in the quarter-finals against Belgium.
Neymar and Philippe Coutinho headline Brazil’s star-studded squad for the friendly with Saudi Arabia. The 23-man delegation boasts eight players from the Premier League, but the squad also includes three fresh faces with Bordeaux defender Pablo, Hannover midfielder Wallace, and Barcelona striker Malcom. U-21 goalkeeper Phelipe has been called up to gain international experience, working with top keepers like Alisson and Ederson, and goalkeeping coach Claudio Taffarel. The strategy to introduce newcomers in the team is part of Brazil’s planning as they seek to win the Copa America, South America’s continental tournament, on home soil in 2019.
“The Seleção is in a phase of transition,” explained Xavier. “In the short term we look to observe and give opportunities to players that we haven’t called up yet or players that we have called up, but haven’t given a lot of opportunities because at the time it wasn’t opportune. That’s the objective in the short term. The medium term is the Copa America. So, we have the opportunity to make a few changes in some positions, so that we have growth in the team.”
Saudi Arabia last played Brazil in February 2002: a single second-half strike from Djalminha was enough for Brazil to secure victory at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. That summer a rejuvenated Ronaldo scored eight goals at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea to win the golden boot and crown Brazil world champions with a brace in the final against Oliver Kahn and Germany. Having watched Saudi Arabia’s friendlies with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Peru and Bolivia, and the team’s three first-round matches at the World Cup, Xavier expects another good contest this time around.
“Antonio [Pizzi] plays with a 4-1-4-1,” highlighted Xavier. “It is a team with quick transitions, a team that doesn’t play the long ball, but likes to play for both the build-up and for transition with a compact and constructive game. The team has different interesting players: Fahad [Al-Muwallad], the central striker, who got injured; [Yahia] Al Shehri on the right and [Salem] Al-Dawsari on the left, who is the team’s main player. He has a good strong right foot, cuts inside and finishes. Saudi Arabia is an interesting team. It’s not a team that commits faults. They mark without making faults. It is not a team that when marking higher up will seek to construct counter-attacks with passing. We have already begun to strategise for the game.”
In September the Falcons drew 2-2 with Bolivia in a friendly, a disappointing result as Pizzi’s eleven led 2-0 after eleven minutes courtesy of goals from Al Shehri and Al-Dawsari, but eventually let slip that advantage against the number 58 on the FIFA world ranking. Pizzi was left to lament a lack of concentration and discipline.
“The collective against Bolivia was of inferior level to the World Cup and the preparation games for Russia,” observed Xavier. “Pizzi had an interesting game against Germany, but lost 2-1. An interesting game against Italy as well, which Saudi Arabia lost 2-1. Saudi Arabia also had an interesting game against Belgium, even though they lost 4-0. It is a team that seeks to play. Saudi Arabia has defensive problems. The team gets exposed trying to play and string passes together, and individual actions. Against Bolivia, Saudi Arabia led 2-0, but substitutions were made which is natural and in the second half you lose quality.”
Saudi Arabia’s outing with Bolivia, the Falcons’ first match after the World Cup, commenced the build-up to the Asian Cup next January in the United Arab Emirates, where Saudi Arabia have been drawn alongside Qatar, Lebanon and North Korea in Group E. After the World Cup, Pizzi’s contract was extended. In the opening game’s tournament the Falcons were humbled 5-0 by hosts Russia before succumbing 1-0 to eventual quarter-finalists Uruguay. In the final group game Saudi Arabia defeated Egypt to record a first World Cup win since 1994 and Saeed Al-Owairan’s famous solo goal against Belgium.
“The standout game in the negative game was against Russia, the hosts who that afternoon were very efficient - almost all their finishes ended up being goals,” analysed Xavier’s Saudi Arabia’s World Cup campaign. The boy Denis Cheryshev came on and would go on to score two to three surprising goals for Russia. They were quick goals and they left Saudi Arabia very exposed. Before the first and second goal, and before the last two goals in quick succession when the game had run its course, Saudi Arabia played and created chances. There are a few plans that Antonio [Pizzi] can make specifically for this game and we have to be watchful of the danger situations. The players up front have speed. There are transitions and we have to take advantage of Saudi’s defensive fragility.”