The final matchday in Round Three of the Asian qualifying competition for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™ takes place next Wednesday, and one of the games of the day is Saudi Arabia’s daunting trip to Melbourne to take on Australia.
The Aussies have already secured top spot in Group D, making sure of their place in the final qualifying round. The question is: can the second-placed Saudis secure the win they need to make sure of joining them, or will they leave the door open for Oman – just a point behind in third – or even Thailand in fourth to sneak through?
Nerves on edge
This is not a situation the Green Falcons are accustomed to. Having qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time at USA 1994, they followed that up with appearances at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, before missing out on a place at South Africa 2010. Even on that occasion, however, they managed to reach the last qualifying round before losing to Bahrain, passing up the chance to face off with New Zealand for a world finals place.
Failure to reach the same stage this time would represent a backward step for Frank Rijkaard’s side, and even though their fate remains in their own hands, Saudi nerves are understandably on edge as they prepare for a daunting duel with the combative Socceroos. Any result other than victory will leave them hanging on news from Muscat, where the Omanis will entertain Thailand, themselves only two points adrift of the Saudis.
Appointed only last July, the Dutchman is determined not to have to rely on results elsewhere: “We’ll be setting our sights on victory and that second place when we go to Australia, and we’ll be preparing like warriors. Everyone’s dreaming of making it to the World Cup and it’s our biggest challenge. I hope to go down in the history of Saudi football by taking this team through.”
The Green Falcons have been anything but consistent in the qualifiers to date. After making short work of Hong Kong in the second preliminary round, the four-time world finalists made an unimpressive start to Group D, kicking off with a goalless draw away to Oman and then slumping to a 3-1 home defeat to the Australians. Another loss was then narrowly averted in a goalless stalemate in Bangkok, leaving Rijkaard’s charges with just two points from three games and plenty of work to do to get themselves back in contention.
A 3-0 win over Thailand in Riyadh brought immediate relief, and though the Omanis stayed well in the frame with a shock victory against the Australians that same day, the Saudis were confident they had gained the momentum that would carry them through. A home win over Oman in November would have settled the issue, but the Saudis spluttered again in a 0-0 draw that left the race for second place wide open with just one round of games to go.
“We didn’t expect that at all and things have taken a turn for the worse,” said a rueful Rijkaard in reference to their third goalless stalemate in the section. “We’ve tried to dictate the play, create chances and score goals in every game we’ve played, and we’ve perhaps lacked a little bit of luck. Even so, we can still go through and it’s still in our hands.”
The Dutch legend’s appointment as coach raised great expectations in Saudi Arabia. Widely admired for his exploits with the Netherlands, Ajax and AC Milan as a player and his achievements with Barcelona as a coach, Rijkaard was given the brief of restoring the fortunes of a side that had not only failed to reach South Africa 2010 but had flopped at last year’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
Blessed with a find blend of exciting youngsters and more experienced hands, the Saudis unquestionably have the potential to kick on and reach Brazil 2014, assuming they can clear this next hurdle. Reflecting on the playing resources at his disposal, Rijkaard said: “I’ve been following the players closely since my arrival here and trying to identify the best ones.
“We also tried to change the way we play, but then decided to leave things the way they were,” he continued. “It’s hard to reshape a team during a qualifying competition, and all I’ve been looking to do is rebuild the players’ confidence and get the best out of them. I feel that as long as they train hard and keep learning things as they go along, then they can definitely play at the highest level.”
The current generation have much to live up to, with those four consecutive FIFA World Cup finals appearances providing a lofty benchmark. Victory in next week’s make-or-break mission in Melbourne would go a long way to helping them reach it, and would rank alongside any of their predecessors’ achievements. That in itself should be motivation enough for Rijkaard's hopefuls.