Juan Antonio Pizzi has suggested his little-known Saudi Arabia team’s ability to fly under the radar could work to their advantage as they prepare to face a star-studded Belgium side tonight in preparation for this summer’s World Cup.
The Green Falcons will open the tournament against Russia on June 14 before facing two-time winners Uruguay as well as Arab neighbours Egypt. Yet while the likes of Luis Suarez and Mohamed Salah have been making headlines internationally and Alan Dzagoev and Yuri Zhirkov have knowledge of playing at the highest level, until recently none of the Saudi squad played outside of the Kingdom.
That changed in January when the country’s football federation sent nine players to Spain on loan to gain international experience, including Al-Hilal’s Salem Al-Dawsari and Al-Ittihad’s Fahad Al-Muwallad. Yet with none of the players having managed to break into the first team, the national team roster remains an unknown entity to many Euro-centric football observers.
With less than 80 days until the tournament begins then, international interest is understandably growing around Pizzi’s team. For the match against Ukraine in Marbella, a camera crew travelled from Russia in the hope of snaring an interview with the Argentine head coach, while a reporter from Fox Sports in the US also made the trip from New York. In Belgium, Sky Sports, the Associated Press and The Times of London among others are all present.
For the TV cameras at least, the most common problem tends to be pronouncing the players' names.
“It’s true that we don’t have too many players known in European football,” Pizzi said. “But there are players that have played very well and at high levels, be it in the local league or, in the case of Al-Hilal, have reached the finals of the Asian Champions League. It could be an advantage for us, or at least give our opponents something to worry about by the fact they do not have much information about our team.”
Eden Hazard, the fleet-footed Belgium forward, conceded he was in the dark regarding his opponents' strengths ahead of tonight’s tie at King Boudouin Stadium, but his coach Roberto Martinez has done his due diligence. The Spaniard, who has watched Saudi's previous three friendlies, said he was expecting to face a technical side that will aim to press and push his players and win the ball high up the field.
Pizzi, who led Chile to Copa America glory with similar tactics in 2016, said it is the only way he knows.
“We as a technical staff have an idea of how we like to play football and we will implement that philosophy in front of any team that we play against,” he said. “I think our team has all the weapons to play such a game, so we will try to implement these ideas to play well, especially if we have the ball in the front lines, but also the defensive lines.”
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