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Lowest-Ranked Team in World Cup Field, Saudi Arabia Sets Out to Spring Surprise

On its third manager during the qualification and preparation process, Saudi Arabia faces plenty of questions entering the 2018 World Cup.
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Heading into their fifth World Cup, there are serious questions about Saudi Arabia. 

Manager Bert van Marwjik, who was in charge during qualification, was fired and replaced by Edgardo Bauza. However, after only five friendlies, Bauza, too, was dismissed and replaced with Juan Antonio Pizzi, who had failed to qualify with Chile in his previous job.

There are also huge doubts about the match fitness of some of their key players. In January, a deal was struck between the Saudi Arabian Sports Authority and La Liga in Spain, which saw nine Saudi players move to Spanish teams on loan, in a bid to gain global exposure and allow the players to gain a better tactical insight into different styles of football. 

Unfortunately, the Saudi players were deemed to be far below the required standard for their Spanish host clubs, meaning the majority of the players have barely played competitive football since January.

Here's what you need to know about Saudi Arabia entering the World Cup.

How They Qualified


At the start of qualification, Saudi Arabia was 102nd in the FIFA world ranking, meaning it was the 11th-highest Asian team, resulting in an automatic bye to the second round of Asian qualification.

After dominating its group in the second round, including a victory over the United Arab Emirates alongside 7-0 and 10-0 victories over minnow Timor-Leste, Saudi Arabia advanced to the third and final round of qualification. 

Drawn in a group alongside Japan, Australia, Iraq, Thailand and the UAE again, Saudi Arabia managed to finish second in the group, relying on goal difference to finish ahead of Australia and qualify for its first World Cup since 2006. 

Saudi Arabia and Japan were the highest scoring teams in the third round, both scoring 17 goals.

Group Stage Games

Saudi Arabia will be part of Group A, and will feature in the tournament's opening match against host Russia on June 14. 

The Saudis will be desperate for a result against Russia, as they will come up against Uruguay on June 20, in what appears on paper to be their most difficult encounter. 

All eyes in Saudi Arabia will have been on the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, as their final opponent will be Egypt on June 25. They will surely have been relieved to see Mohamed Salah forced off the field, and with the Egyptian's World Cup status uncertain, Saudi Arabia will be hopeful of its chances to compete with the North Africans.

Possible Route to the Final


Should Saudi Arabia make it out of its group, they would be paired with a member of Group B in the last 16.

Spain and Portugal are the heavy favorites to qualify from this group, meaning Saudi Arabia, should it somehow survive its own group, will be serious underdogs to go to the last eight.

The Saudis made it to the first knockout in 1994 (their best finish), and matching that will be seen as an achievement. However, anything further would be miraculous consider the likely level of opposition in either Spain or Portugal.

In the incredibly unlikely event Pizzi's side does make it to the last eight, the likes of either France or Argentina could be waiting for the Saudis.



Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al-Owais (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli), Abdullah Al-Mayouf (Al Hilal)

Defenders: Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al Hilal) Mohammed Al-Breik (Al HIlal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al Hilal)

Midfielders: Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al-Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al-Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al-Faraj (Al Hilal), Mohamed Kanno (Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al-Shehri (Al Nassr)

Forwards: Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al Ittihad), Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli)

Predicted Lineup


(4-2-3-1) Yasser Al-Musailem; Yasser Al-Shahrani, Osama Hawsawi, Motaz Hawsami, Mansoor Al-Harbi; Salman Al-Faraj, Houssain Al-Mogahwi; Taiseer Al-Jassim, Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri, Yehya Al-Shehri; Mohammed Al-Sahlawi



Saudi Arabia's team is full of smaller, technical players, with only Osama Hawsawi standing at above six feet. While Pizzi has yet to stamp his mark on the team, it is known to like to play attack-minded football, often intending to simply score more than it concedes. 

The Saudis are not used to being the underdogs, and their attempts at offensive football will create gaps for the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Salah (if he returns from injury) to exploit. 

Uruguay and quite possibly Russia should prove to be too strong for Saudi Arabia, with its best chance of a result surely coming against Egypt in the final round of group play. 

With or without Salah, Egypt will still be expecting a positive result against the Saudis, which could leave Saudi Arabia at the bottom of its group.