Saudi Arabia are historically one of Asia’s most successful sides, though they have also on occasions been unpredictable. But never before have they been so erratic as in recent times, with the Green Falcons demonstrating vastly contrasting form over the past two years.
The Saudis, under Frank Rijkaard, crashed out of Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in February 2012 - the first time they had suffered such an early elimination. Nearly two years on, coached by new boss Juan Lopez Caro, they have emerged a different side and last month sealed qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup with two games to spare.
The Asian competition has, in a sense, provided Caro and his side with a perfect chance to redeem themselves. After watching his outfit see off Iraq 2-1 recently to complete their qualifying mission, the former Real Madrid manager lauded the team's character.
"All the players performed well and they played with great fighting spirit," said the 50-year-old, "Iraq are a good side and they didn’t make things easy for us. However, the big spirit of our players helped us to get a good victory at the end."
Caro the motivator
Having produced such notables as Saeed Al Owairan and Sami Al Jaber, Saudi Arabia is clearly a nation capable of developing rich talent. Mentality, though, seems to have been a problem for the Saudis who sometimes choke on big occasions.
Caro was shrewd enough to focus on the team's psychological side when he took over, stressing responsibility, discipline and commitment. The efforts paid off in the AFC Asian Cup qualifying opener, when a new-look Saudi team overcame China PR 2-1 at home. The next game saw the Saudis battle from behind to edge hosts Indonesia by an identical scoreline, performances which earned praise from the coach.
"We faced a strong team with an organised defence and Indonesia's early goal surprised us. Though, the players kept the composure and finally we turned the table."
With such attitudes instilled into the players' minds, Caro's side have grown stronger, both mentally and tactically, game after game. They went on to defeat Iraq back-to-back, results which saw them among the first qualified teams alongside United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Changing of the guard
Their qualifying success has so far seen a new-look squad take shape. With injury-prone striking legend Yasser Al Qahtani missing the qualifying campaign, the burden of goal-scoring resonsibility fell on the shoulders of on-song Al Hilal duo Nasser Al Shamrani and Yousef Al Salem. Sensational Al Shabab forward Naif Hazazi, meanwhile, remains a key option upfront, having come from bench to score the match-winner against China.
New blood has been injected to provide fresh impetus for the team, with as many as eight under-23 players breaking into Caro's squad. Notable among the youngsters are Al Ahli midfielder Mustafa Al Bassas and Al Ittihad prospect Fahad Al Muwallad. The latter, a teenager, showed a glimpse of his talents when he opened the scoring against China.
A series of seasoned campaigners, however, remain the team's experienced core. Former Anderlecht defender Osama Hawsawi is the cornerstone at the back, while bossing the midfield is none other than Saud Kariri, one of the team's two players to have participated in their last FIFA World Cup at Germany 2006 alongside back-up goalkeeper Mabrouk Zaid.
The 33-year-old Al Ittihad man started in each game in the global extravaganza seven years ago. Since being appointed captain at the start of the Asian Cup qualifying campaign, Kariri has provided the team with experience and leadership as Saudi Arabia successfully sealed their place in the Asian finals.
"We have maintained our lead in our group," he said after the recent 1-1 draw in China in the penultimate fixture. "We prepared for this game and we were committed to what the coach asked us to do. Our level is moving up in every match. The qualifying success provides us with a timely booster and the motivation for permanent development."