Syria stun heavyweights Saudi Arabia
© AFP

Syria shocked 2007 finalists and three-time champions Saudi Arabia 2-1 at the AFC Asian Cup on Sunday in Group B, piling yet more pressure on their underfire coach Jose Peseiro.

Syria, who had to hold on for grim life in the end and survived several scares, had Abdulrazak Al Husein to thank for the unexpected victory, the midfielder bagging a brace - both off deflections. With Japan and Jordan drawing 1-1 earlier in the day, the unheralded Syrians top the Group B table after one of the biggest victories in their footballing history and celebrated afterwards like they had won the tournament.

"I didn't expect to win but I expected us to play well," said Syria's Romanian coach Tita Valeriu, who has only been in the job a few weeks. "It was a great game. I had only a very short time to coach the team but we used a formation that worked very well. That was the key."

Peseiro has faced heavy criticism after failing to steer his side to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and he has tetchy relations with the Saudi press. "We didn't deserve to lose, but we lost," said the Portuguese. "We are disappointed with the result, but not the spirit.

"In the second-half we showed good spirit. I don't want to talk about individuals because I'm the coach so it's my responsibility. Some of the players didn't play well but they put in maximum effort in the second-half. The performance was not very good, but it was not very bad."

Tense opening
Syria had marginally the better of the tense opening exchanges, midfielder Wael Ayan flashing the ball wide with a left-footed half-volley on three minutes that never troubled Saudi keeper Waleed Abdullah. That was the highlight of an unattractive opening spell at a three-quarters full Al-Rayyan Stadium.

The prolific Yasser Al Qahtani, the Saudi Arabian captain and their talisman, then had his first whiff of an opportunity, but he was snuffed out by some dogged Syrian defending inside the six-yard box. Nicknamed "the Sniper" for his pinpoint accuracy in front of goal, Al Qahtani had been a doubt for the game with a foot injury and he hardly looked fit.

Ayan was always a willing outlet on the left for the Syrians, who entered the tournament after a shambolic preparation that saw Valeriu become their third coach in three months. But it was Saudi Arabia who should have taken the lead but Al Qahtani's strike partner Nassir Alshamrani slotted the ball wide when he ought to have done better. Roared on by vocal Syrian support, Mohamad Al Zino then brought a smart save out of Waleed with the Saudi keeper diving low to his right to palm the ball away.

On 38 minutes Syria took the lead. Saudi defender Osama Hawsawi could only clear the ball as far as Al Husein, who shot first time from just outside the box with the ball deflecting in off the head of Abdullah Shuhail.

Syria carried the momentum into the second-half, immediately putting their more highly-rated opponents on the backfoot. However, the Saudis then enjoyed a sustained period of possession and on the equaliser can on the hour - a moment of horror for Syrian keeper Mosab Balhous. His unconvincing punch from a corner was headed back towards goal by substitute Taiseer Al Jassam. It should have been a routine save, but the captain inexplicably flapped at the ball, letting it slip between his legs and into the net.

But the Saudis were level for just three minutes as Al Husein grabbed his second, the ball again going in off a Saudi defender after the midfielder followed up on a sloppy clearance.