Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group A is Saudi Arabia.
For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.
Our writers say: After missing out on the last two tourneys following four consecutive appearances, Al-Akhdhar, or The Green, mostly are just happy to be in Russia. As the weakest squad in the field, odds are they won’t be there for long. — Doug McIntyre
(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)
World Cup appearance: 5th
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1994)
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Second in Asia’s Group B, behind Japan, ahead of Australia on goal differential
Schedule: Russia (Thursday, June 14, 11 a.m., Fox), Uruguay (Wednesday, June 20, 11 a.m., Fox), Egypt (Monday, June 25, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)
Manager: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Captain: Osama Hawsawi (D)
Top players: Fahad Al-Muwallad (F), Yahya Al-Shehri (M)
Full 23-man squad
Why they’ll win games: Unlike other World Cup minnows, they’ll actually come out and play soccer. They’ll attack. They’ll be adventurous on the ball and expansive on the counter. If Egypt or Russia takes the Saudis for granted, they have the skill and the ambition to steal three points.
Why they’ll lose games: Unlike other World Cup minnows, they’ll actually come out and play soccer … and that will expose a completely overmatched defense. Saudi Arabia was built to qualify through a weak Asian circuit, but not to even tread water once it gets to Russia. It’s essentially an all-star team from the Saudi domestic league, with 17 of the 23 players coming from last season’s top two clubs – clubs accustomed to playing with the ball, on the front foot. The roster is full of small, technical players. They’ll be in for rude awakenings, and could leak goals left and right.
How they’ll play: They’ll build from the back, and won’t be shy about getting forward. It’s the only way they know. And there’s really no other option, because the players, physically, are tiny by international soccer standards. Only one outfield player in the projected starting 11 stands taller than 6 feet.
But we can’t really be sure about the specifics of how they’ll play, because Pizzi has only been in charge since November. Bert van Marwijk led the team to the World Cup, then parted ways with the federation over a contract dispute. Edgardo Bauza was brought in, then sacked after two months. The Saudi federation then ultimately turned to Pizzi. So yeah, it’s been a circus.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Abdullah Al-Mayouf; Yasser Al-Shahrani, Osama Hawsami, Motaz Hawsawi, Mansoor Al-Harbi; Abdullah Otayf, Salman Al-Faraj; Fahad Al-Muwallad, Yahya Al-Shehri, Salem Al-Dawsari; Muhammad Al-Sahlawi.
Against stronger teams, the experienced Taisir Al-Jassim could come into midfield for extra support – or could start ahead of Al-Faraj anyway. The formation could look more like a 4-3-3 if Jassim comes in, with one of the wingers or striker dropping out and Al-Shehri taking his place in the front three.
What makes them unique: Saudi Arabia’s La Liga scheme is one of the stranger World Cup prep stories. Essentially, the Saudi federation arranged to send nine national teamers on short-term loans to Spanish clubs, with the idea that top-level experience would prepare them for Russia. The Spanish clubs were exempt from paying their salaries. But there were no playing time guarantees or mandates. So, naturally, even the best Saudi players who were part of the scheme barely saw the field in Spain, and now go into the World Cup having played very few competitive matches over the past six months.
Why to root for them: Because there’s a non-zero chance they beat Russia in the opener by multiple goals with some surprisingly stunning soccer, then eke out a result against Egypt as well. Heck, they could even beat the Pharaohs. They could become the tournament darlings, even if they would eventually get smashed in the knockout round.
Why to root against them: Because they’re either the worst or second-worst team at the tournament.
If you’re going to watch one game … watch the opener – because regardless of the teams on show, missing a World Cup opener as a soccer fan is sacrilegious.
Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan
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More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Ranking the top 100 players at the World Cup
• FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
• A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
• How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit