Saudi Arabia survives Oman scare in Asian Cup: Three key takeaways

Saudi Arabia coach Roberto Mancini had predicted a “difficult game” against Oman ahead of the two nations’ Asian Cup opener, and that is exactly what his side was served at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Tuesday.

The Green Falcons were down 1-0 at half-time and staring at yet another disappointing show against the opponent, but showed enough steel to rally in the second half to survive the early scare as goals from Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Ali al-Bulayhi handed Mancini’s side a vital 2-1 victory to start its Asian Cup campaign on a positive note.

Saudi Arabia coach Roberto Mancini reacts. (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia coach Roberto Mancini reacts.

Al Arabiya English breaks down three key takeaways from Saudi Arabia’s opening encounter.

Saudis show the winning zeal

In his pre-match press conference, Saudi Arabia coach Mancini had created quite a flutter by questioning the mentality of some of his players. The Italian claimed goalkeeper Nawaf al-Aqidi, midfielder Salman al-Faraj and full-back Sultan al-Ghannam were all excluded from his final squad because they had refused to play in friendlies ahead of the Asian Cup.

It was an explosive accusation but it demonstrated that Mancini is a coach who won’t tolerate any sign of indiscipline.

“Players don’t decide if they play or not, I decide … I only want players who fight for their country,” Mancini had said. “The national team is not a club; it’s your country. You represent all the people in your country.”

Against Oman, Saudi Arabia’s players showed the sort of fighting spirit that Mancini expects as a minimum and that is necessary to win big tournaments.

The Green Falcons were slow off the mark and deservedly went behind when Salaah al-Yahyaei converted from the penalty spot. However, Mancini’s side looked far more cohesive after the interval and was inspired by the contribution of substitute Ghareeb.

Saudi Arabia’s Salem al-Dawsari in action with Oman’s Salaah al-Yahyaei and Harib al-Saadi. (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia’s Salem al-Dawsari in action with Oman’s Salaah al-Yahyaei and Harib al-Saadi.

The Al-Nassr winger came on in the 75th minute, and his performance was emblematic of the character Mancini is demanding from the squad.

Within three minutes of entering the fray, Ghareeb had Saudi Arabia back on level terms with a glorious goal as he dribbled and twinkle-toed through the Oman defense before slotting home. Then, deep into stoppage time, his corner helped create the Green Falcons’ winner.

Ghareeb will surely be rewarded with a spot in Mancini’s starting XI for the next game against Kyrgyzstan.

Al-Bulayhi, man for big occasion

Center-back Ali al-Bulayhi is not known to be a prolific scorer, but when he does find the mark, it tends to have a major impact on the overall outcome of the game. The Al Hilal defender has been imperious at the back for his club this season, forging a rock-solid partnership with Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly that has seen al-Bulayhi remarkably concede just five goals in 25 matches.

Not only has al-Bulayhi improved his defensive game significantly, but has also chipped in with some crucial goals. For Al-Hilal, he scored a stoppage-time equalizer in the team’s AFC Champions League opener against Navbahor, while, in his most recent Saudi Pro League outing, al-Bulayhi broke the deadlock with an 86th-minute strike against Al-Fayha that helped his side to victory.

Saudi Arabia’s Ali Al-Bulayhi celebrates after the match. (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia’s Ali Al-Bulayhi celebrates after the match.

However, there may be no sweeter late goal for al-Bulayhi than the one he scored against Oman on Tuesday. After netting the leveler, Ghareeb turned provider in the 96th minute as his corner was flicked on by Ali Lajami toward fellow center-back al-bulayhi. The Al Hilal man flung himself toward the ball and his header hit the back of the net – sending the Saudi Arabian players and fans into rapture.

Overcoming the Oman omen

Oman has repeatedly proved to be a stubborn opponent for Saudi Arabia in recent years, and that was yet again the case in the Asian Cup opener. Coach Branko Ivankovic has helped mold his Oman players into a solid unit, and after leading his side to victory over the Green Falcons in last year’s Arabian Gulf Cup group stage, it appeared he would repeat the feat again in Qatar.

When Al-Nahda forward Al-Yahyaei scored from the spot after 14 minutes, the Omanis in attendance went wild with joy, even as Saudi heads dropped. In six of the nation’s previous nine games, the Green Falcons had failed to win – playing Oman often turned out to be a bad omen for the side.

Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Radif in action with Oman’s Salaah al-Yahyaei on January 16, 2024. (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Radif in action with Oman’s Salaah al-Yahyaei on January 16, 2024.

This time, however, Oman faced a more resilient Saudi Arabia side, and Mancini’s men managed to eke out a narrow win. The significance of Tuesday’s win is certainly not lost on the fact that in the Green Falcons’ past eight victories against Oman, six have come by a single goal.

Mancini will be relieved now, to have avoided a potential banana skin in the tournament opener and can now turn his attention to facing Kyrgyzstan. Three points from that game would see Saudi Arabia guaranteed a spot in the last-16 with a game to spare, which would give Mancini and his players some welcome breathing space.

For Oman, the next match against Thailand is a tricky test, as the side is currently on top of Group F after its 2-0 win over Kyrgyzstan.

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