With former coach Nasser Al Johar back at the helm, Saudi Arabia got their campaign back on track to secure a place in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Under the former national team skipper, who stepped in for Brazilian Hélio dos Anjos in June, the Sons of the Desert sealed progression with a 2-0 away win over Singapore in the penultimate fixture, before rounding off the third round with a 4-0 demolition of Uzbekistan - a result which not only procured them some much-desired revenge for the 3-0 loss in the return fixture, but also saw Al Johar's side win the group ahead of the Central Asians on goal difference.
The success came as a tremendous boost for coach Al Johar and his charges ahead of their campaign in the final qualifying round, where they have to battle it out against Korea Republic, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Korea DPR for the group's two automatic spots at the global showpiece.
"Our players did what they had to do in reaching the final round, and I trust them," said Al Johar, who guided Saudi Arabia to Korea/Japan 2002. "Now we want to win this group, and book qualification early!"
Four-time national coach
If experience counts for anything, few would question the Saudi authorities' wisdom in giving the national job back to the man whose knowledge of Asian football is second to none.
Al Johar first made an impression with Saudi Arabia in the 2000 AFC Asian Cup, when he took over from Milan Macala just one game into the competition - a disastrous 4-1 loss to Japan. Under Al Johar, Saudi Arabia bounced back to storm into the final, where they were only edged out by Japan by a solitary goal.
After initially establishing his name as a "firefighter", his second spell with the national team came when he replaced Serbian Slobodan Santrac two games into Asia's final qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup. Again he rose to the occasion, and succeeded in guiding Saudi Arabia to Korea/Japan 2002.
He then had a short stint as interim coach after Saudi Arabia sacked Dutchman Gerard van der Lem following their disastrous campaign at the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, where they failed to progress beyond the group stage. Then, after a four-year Brazilian reign which saw Marcos Paqueta and fellow countryman Hélio dos Anjos in charge, the 65-year-old Al Johar rose from the ashes, and is back at the helm for the fourth time.
Although Al Johar oversaw the team's disappointing campaign at Korea/Japan 2002, which included an 8-0 humiliation at the hands of eventual finalists Germany, his record at the continental stage speaks for itself. Not surprisingly, he sounded relieved to see his team avoid the unknown top seeds Australia, and he now hopes that his immense experience will count when playing against the familiar Asian rivals.
"There are no unfamiliar opponents in Group B. We have played all of them before," he remarked after the group was drawn. "All five teams know each other quite well."
Furthermore, Al Johar could also draw inspiration from the proud record they boast against their major rivals, Iran and Korea Republic. Saudi Arabia booked qualification for Korea/Japan 2002 at the expense of Team Melli, and four years later, they twice prevailed over the Taeguk Warriors en route to Germany 2006.
Despite this, Al Johar knows all too well that the Asian waters are sometimes muddy, and that the team must perform to their full potential if they are to book their fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance.
"All our rivals excelled in the last round, so the final round won't be easy for us," he concluded.
To prepare for their opening game against Iran on 6 September, Al Johar will call the team together for a European camp starting in late July, and the team will play its first warm-up match against Paraguay on 20 August. A friendly against Qatar ten days later will provide further solid preparation for the Iran game.