Saudis in need of fast start
Three-time Asian Cup winners Saudi Arabia need a winning start in Group B against Syria tomorrow to convince the doubters they have what it takes to banish the pain of four years ago.
Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro is under huge pressure back home to deliver after he clung on to his job despite failing to steer the Saudis to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
Fans also criticised him after the Green Falcons lost to Kuwait 1-0 on 5 December in the final of the increasingly popular Gulf Cup.
"I accept the pressure but ask you don't put pressure on my players," Peseiro said at a pre-match press conference where Saudi Arabian media peppered him with questions about his future and tactics. "Don't put pressure on them because they need to play," he said.
The Saudis lost the final four years ago to Iraq 1-0, and Peseiro has gone with a mix of experience and youth in Doha, where they are again one of the favourites.
"The team did a great job in 2007 and we have kept some of those players but we also have new players," said the Portuguese. "I feel positive. There is expectation - that gives us responsibility, but also hope. We need to keep the ball, we need mobility, keep our model and our tactics."
If they are to enjoy a good run they will need star striker and captain Yasser Al Qahtani, who scored four goals to share the 2007 AFC Asian Cup golden boot, to be firing.
But there are doubts over his fitness for the Syria clash, with media reports claiming he may not make the game with a minor foot injury. "I hope he can play," the coach said. "He's recovering and I believe he will be able to play."
If Saudi Arabia's build-up has been far from ideal with constant criticism of Peseiro and patchy form, Syria's preparation has been even more challenging. They only drafted in Romanian Tita Valeriu in mid-December as a stop-gap after the job changed hands three times in as many months.
And the 44-year-old, who has been borrowed from Syrian club Ittihad, admitted: "I've been working one month for the team and that's not been enough time to prepare the team well.
"But we come here to prove that Syria are a very good football team, though it's true that we have a very difficult group and everybody is expecting us to end up third. But we're here to prove ourselves."
The revolving door of coaches started after Syria qualified for the Asian Cup under homegrown Fajr Ibrahim.
They won four matches and drew twice - including a 3-2 win over second-placed China - as the only country to remain unbeaten in any group. But Ibrahim was fired after his squad lost two straight friendlies to Kuwait and Yemen in September.
Syria then had mixed results under caretaker coach Ayman Hackeem before Ratomir Dujkovic replaced him. The Serb took charge of only one match when Syria dominated Bahrain 2-0 in a mid-November friendly with solid midfield pressure and an improved defence.
Japan and Jordan, the other sides in the group, also play each other tomorrow.