PREVIEW: Saudi Arabia confident and ready to take on Russia in World Cup opener

Salem Al-Dawsari takes instructions from Juan Antonio Pizzi, both men will be key to the side's chances of making it out of Group A.
Updated 14 June 2018
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PREVIEW: Saudi Arabia confident and ready to take on Russia in World Cup opener

  • Time for talk is over as Saudi Arabia get ready to face Russia in Moscow.
  • First appearance for the Green Falcons at World Cup since 2006.

MOSCOW: Finally, the day has arrived. Three years after their first qualifying match, nine months after they secured their place at the finals, six months after being drawn to compete in the opening match, and six days after landing in Russia, the Saudi Arabia national football team will take center stage today at the World Cup’s curtain-raiser.
After much preparation and posturing, the time for talk is over. On Thursday (June 14), at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Saudi Arabia will face hosts Russia in what will be the Gulf nation’s first appearance at the tournament in 12 years. And if the scenes on the streets surrounding the capital’s Red Square are any indication, the Green Falcons will enjoy a raucous reception.
On Tuesday night, with Russians having gathered outside a cordoned-off Kremlin to celebrate their national day with an exclusive concert, the nearby streets were filled with football fans from different countries. Mexicans in sombreros sang alongside Colombians who banged metal tins; Egyptians dressed as pharaohs posed for photos alongside Iranians; Moroccans, Tunisians, Peruvians, Brazilians, Germans, Argentines, Uruguayans, and even a small group of Australians all mingled together under the cool night sky.
And there in the middle of Nikolskaya St. — with some having climbed atop a wooden bench and others waving Saudi Arabia flags or banners of the royal family from the tiled pavement below — rejoiced the Saudis. Grown men who still remember their country’s first participation in 1994, smiling boys who can name all the current players and their shirt numbers, and young women with their mothers excited at the prospect of cheering for their countrymen inside an 81,000-seat stadium with an estimated 250 million spectators watching around the world.
Abdulrahman Al-Shibari — from Riyadh but studying in Moscow — hopped merrily among the crowd, each of his cheeks bearing a small painted green rectangle filled with the shahada and a sword.
Al-Shibari said he is confident his country will do him proud. “We will win 3-0, inshallah!” he proclaimed loudly. “We have a good team, good players and we will win, inshallah! We will progress to the next round. I am sure we will do it!” 
When the 32-team World Cup draw was made last December, grouping the Green Falcons with Russia, Uruguay and Egypt, some eyebrows were raised. Not only does today’s opening game mark the first time an Arab side has contested the tournament’s curtain-raiser, but if Russia — ranked 70th in the world — wanted the easiest possible start to their month-long showpiece on home soil, they could not have chosen a more suitable opponent than 67th-ranked Saudi Arabia.
Yet to suggest the Arab side are easy opponents for the home nation would be to underestimate the work that has been going on behind the scenes for the past seven months. With the support of SAFF, the country’s football federation, the Saudi team has enjoyed a preparation that other nations could only dream of. Juan Antonio Pizzi, appointed as head coach only in November, has been able to train his squad daily for the past two months, taking them to Europe for camps and warm-up matches against some of the best teams in the world.
“First of all, I think it is a massive achievement for every player to play at a World Cup,” Pizzi told Arab News. “The main priority will be for the players to feel the pride of representing their own country. From a professional point of view, it is clear the World Cup will represent the highest level they have ever played at, so our role has been to get the players to reach that level and be ready to play to their potential.”
Unlike Bert van Marwijk, the Dutch coach who successfully steered the side through the qualifying stages, Pizzi was more than happy to move to Riyadh. The benefits of living in the country that you will represent to the world are untold, he said.
“Since we started working with the Saudi national team we have lived their permanently,” he said. “We wanted this because we need to live the experience as much as we can — not only the football, but the culture, the people, the emotions and excitement and expectations of the World Cup.
“When you live and work inside the country, you are doing the football part, of course, but you are also carrying out your social obligations, too, and better understand the cultures and behaviors. 
“I was positively surprised in truth by the different culture and the chance to experience it all. To be honest, we have found a lot of warmth and respect in our day-to-day life. Now we understand better and are able to share the ambitions of the people in Saudi Arabia.”
Pizzi, who coached Chile to Copa America glory in 2016 and, as a result, led them at the Confederations Cup here last summer, said that while he intends to bring joy to the Saudi fans, he and his team are aware of the dangers that Russia bring. The hosts are without a win in their past seven international matches, but unlike the Green Falcons, they have enjoyed a period of relative stability with coach Stanislav Cherchesov having been at the helm since August 2016. That, plus a home advantage, make the opening game all the more difficult.
“For the past two years, Russia have been working with the same head coach and much the same squad, so they are settled and have that stability and familiarity,” Pizzi said. “Physically, they are very strong and we will need to find solutions to overcome this advantage of theirs.
“We are obviously going to face a very motivated opponent, playing at home in front of their expectant fans. Although their level has decreased in the past six months, we respect them and appreciate that not only do they have potential to be a good team, but they will have the home support, too.
“What we hope is that our strategy will force them to play a different way and they will fear their own fans turning on them.”
Indeed, the mood around the Russia camp has been largely negative ahead of today’s match. Several of the host side’s players have canceled their social media accounts and are avoiding local press. It is easy to understand why. The headline in yesterday’s The Moscow Times read: “Ageing and Inexperienced: Why Russia Is Doomed to Fail.” 
The Saudi fans dancing on the streets of Moscow this week will be hoping the local press are correct. After days, months and years of waiting, the day is finally here. The team is ready, the fans are in position, the world is watching. The ball, tonight, is at the feet of the Green Falcons.


Work still to be done for Egypt's Al-Ahly in quest for African Champions League glory

Updated 23 September 2018
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Work still to be done for Egypt's Al-Ahly in quest for African Champions League glory

  • The Egyptian giants took a step closer to a ninth continental title
  • Attention immediately changed to the first leg against Setif in Cairo on Oct. 2

CAIRO: Al-Ahly coach Patrice Carteron has warned his players against complacency in their forthcoming African Champions League semifinal clash against Setif of Algeria, even though his side swept through with a 4-0 quarterfinal second-leg victory over Guinea’s Horoya in Cairo on Saturday.
The Egyptian giants took a step closer to a ninth continental title with the win against the Guineans after a goalless first leg. From the moment Walid Soliman opened the scoring after 32 minutes at the Al-Salam Stadium, the result was never in doubt as the Reds put in a dominant performance.
Second half goals from Islam Mohareb, Salah Mohsen and Ahmed Fathy confirmed the win.
“It was a good performance, especially as the pitch was poor,” Carteron said. “We are happy to go through but we controlled the game, especially in the second half when we were at our best. We adjusted our offensive strategy at the break and that made a difference.”
Attention immediately changed to the first leg against Setif in Cairo on Oct. 2.
“We know that the game will be very tough as Setif are a strong team but this is the semifinal of the Champions League, you know that any game is going to be tough,” added the Frenchman.
Setif defeated defending champions Wydad Casablanca of Morocco 1-0 on aggregate and will host Al-Ahly in Algeria in the second leg on Oct. 23.
“Setif were the champions in 2014 and we know that we are going to have be at our best if we are going to the final,” said the 48 year-old, who also coached TP Mazembe of Congo to the 2015 title. He is aiming to deliver similar success for Al-Ahly, who last lifted the trophy in 2013.
“When I took the job three months ago, the target was clear: to win the Champions League. That is still the objective and we have taken a big step toward that today.
“Standards in the competition are getting better all the time and results in the quarterfinal show this,” Carteron said, adding that he and his players had taken note of how Mazembe had been knocked out at the last-eight stage.
“Now we are in the semifinal and we have to prepare as well as we can to face Setif. It will be a big challenge but we are looking forward to it.”
Setif reached the semifinal after a 0-0 draw in the second leg in Morocco on Friday to take the tie 1-0 on aggregate following a win on Algerian soil a week earlier.
Goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba was the star of the show in Casablanca and made a number of fine saves to deny the defending champions.
It was a feather in the cap for coach Rachid Taoussi, a Moroccan who coached Wydad from 2002 to 2003.
“We managed this game very well,” Taoussi said. “We withstood the pressure. It is not easy to keep out such a team, especially with their fans behind them. In the end they had to play long balls and that made it easier for us to defend.”
While Morocco may have lost its sole representative left in the competition, Taoussi is flying the flag for his homeland. “I am proud to be Moroccan. I respect Wydad and the supporters a lot. It’s not easy for anyone to come here and play like we did.
“It is also a demonstration for those who constantly criticize the skills of Moroccan coaches. I’m so happy. That said, the most important thing for us now is to think about going even further in this competition, that is, reaching the final. We have one more step to go; we will give everything until the end.”
The other semifinal sees a third North African team trying to reach the showpiece event as Esperance de Tunis take on Clube Desportivo de Agosto of Angola.