Saudi Arabia enjoyed a memorable 2007, highlighted by their run to the AFC Asian Cup final in July. If their four-place rise to 57th on the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is a hint of what is to come, then the Sons of the Desert are in for another prosperous year too.
Following a disappointing 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ campaign, Saudi Arabia embarked on a rebuilding process which reaped dividends in the continental finals. Under the guidance of Brazilian Helio dos Anjos, the three-time winners swept aside the likes of Uzbekistan and Japan to storm into their sixth Asian Cup final, where they narrowly lost out to Iraq.
Despite the defeat, the Saudis underlined their status as regional heavyweights. Furthermore, their brilliant performances throughout the competition did not go unnoticed as they were rewarded with a ten-place shoot up to 51st on the next month's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking - their highest placing since the inception of the new system in July 2006.
The following months may have seen Dos Anjos' charges move up and down the ladder, ending the year with a 61st-place finish, but they bounced back this month by jumping four spots. It is a favourable omen for a team who kick off their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign in less than three weeks' time.
Saudi Arabia's qualifier will come on 6 February when they play host to Singapore in Riyadh. While a comfortable win should be within their grasp, coach Dos Anjos and his charges are already setting their sights beyond the preliminary competition.
Since their debut at USA 1994, Saudi Arabia have been dominant in Asia Zone qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, reaching each of the past four editions of the finals. And on the back of their form at the Asian Cup 2007, they are hotly tipped to book their fifth consecutive appearance on the world stage.
However, as history has shown, no FIFA World Cup qualifying games are easy in Asia. With this in mind, Dos Anjos chose to begin preparations for the visit of Singapore early with a series of warm-up matches. Following the Asian Cup, they overwhelmed Ghana 5-0 in September, followed it up with a 1-0 reverse of Namibia in early-November and then beat Estonia 2-0.
With these results behind them, the Gulf nation entered the Pan Arab Games as the unquestionable favourites. After a hard-fought 2-0 win over Sudan, though, their winning touch deserted them. They struggled to a 1-1 draw against United Arab Emirates in their next fixture, before losing their two remaining matches 2-1 to Libya and Egypt respectively.
The mixed results sounded the warning signals, and skipper Yasser Al Qahtani was quick to warn against complacency in South Africa 2010 qualifying. "Most are talking about Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia as the overwhelming favourites in the group, but this is not the case. The World Cup qualifiers are played on a home-and-away basis, thus every participating team have a chance to qualify," Al Qahtani warned.
Since representing Saudi Arabia in two of their group matches at Germany 2006, including scoring a spectacular goal against Tunisia, Al Qahtani has established his status as the true heir to the legendary striker Sami Al Jaber. He cemented his place as the team's new talisman by steering Saudi Arabia to the AFC Asian Cup final, topping the scoring charts with four goals - an achievement that earned him the AFC Asian Player of the Year award last year.
Although their recent progress has given Al Qahtani and Saudi Arabia room for optimism, they are not taking anything for granted against Singapore. "You have to respect the teams who have qualified for this stage. It's not going to be easy," he concluded.