Japan recovers, UAE falters: 5 takeaways from final Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

Saudi Arabia shows growing self-confidence with epic World Cup qualifying win over China

It was a truly epic game in Jeddah.

The record books will show Saudi Arabia’s 3-2 win over China, but won’t show how intense that game was in 90 minutes, plus nine minutes of added time.

There was a lot to do, but perhaps the prevailing feeling was that this was the kind of game every team needs, a shared experience that will bring players together. It’s a battle Saudi Arabia went through if not unscathed, then undefeated, and is looking good for the 2022 World Cup.

This Saudi team remains the only one out of 12 of the last qualifying round with the maximum of 12 points from the first four games. With only the top two of the six-team groups awarded an automatic berth in Qatar, there is still work to be done, but the Green Falcons have already done a lot. That was certainly the case on Tuesday.

The first half was a walk, with Sami Al-Najei making the difference. It was perhaps no surprise that the Chinese defense failed to shut it down as quickly as it should have for the opener. The man from Al-Nassr was sort of a shock selection, with Abdulrahman Ghareeb or Abdulrahman Al-Aboud having to get the green light. Cutting from the left, the 24-year-old delighted home fans with the clearest shots just outside the box and the hosts had their lead.

After that ? Pleasantly, they continued to move forward. Events elsewhere throughout the day have shown that a single goal lead is fragile. Saudi Arabia lobbied the front, giving the Chinese defense the time and space it would usually expect on a busy road from Shanghai or Beijing.

In short, there is a new self-confidence in this team. That’s understandable, given the recent results – before this clash, the team were on an eight-game winning streak. Everyone wanted the ball, everyone wanted to reach the visitors, and everyone seemed confident that goals number two and three would come.

On the contrary, maybe there was a little too much confidence and the high line used by the Saudi backline was risky. He was nearly punished after 34 minutes when a delicious Zhang Yuning turn in the middle was followed by a smart pass to free Wu Lei. The Espanyol forward shot fiercely from inside the box, but Mohammed Al-Owais, a keeper in great shape, made a top-notch save. It was a wake-up call and a reminder that if China was an outsider, it wasn’t Asian minnows.

Then Al-Najei, who had never scored for his country in seven international matches, struck again. It was a real poacher’s goal. He played at the far post and was rewarded with a looping cross which he brought home with a well placed knee. If Fahad Al-Muwallad had shown such composure moments later when he took off with only the keeper to beat, the match would have been over.

At the break it seemed so easy, but a few seconds after the restart everything changed. Chinese coach Li Tie threw two of his Brazilians and one, Aloisio scored almost instantly with a spectacular looping volley.

Hervé Renard lamented the lack of concentration of his players in the second half, but with this goal the match was transformed. The visitors seemed animated and it was now a real test. The East Asians looked like a different team and there were real concerns when Al-Owais suffered an injury midway through the second half after a heavy challenge from Ai Kesen, the third Brazilian to be introduced.

The long stoppage of nearly 10 minutes disrupted China’s momentum and soon after, the hosts restored their two-goal advantage. Firas Al-Buraikan, the super submarine who also scored against Japan, came off the bench to shoot point blank.

The goal took the Chinese sails of breath, but there was still time for the visitors to reduce the backlog thanks to a mistake by substitute shooter Fawaz Al-Qarni. Saudi Arabia hung on for the win.

It was a vital victory that puts the team in the lead with a three-point lead. Trips to Australia and Vietnam in November will go a long way in deciding whether it is a walk in Qatar, similar to the first half in Jeddah, or a fight to the end, like the game. Tuesday took place.

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