Algeria, Nigeria scrape through to World Cup playoffs

LONDON: For Saudi Arabia, the so-called “group of death” is proving to be anything but, as manager Herve Renard’s men on Tuesday edged ever closer to a place at the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

The day before, England thrashed San Marino 10-0 to record their biggest win in a competitive match in a century and a half of international football. It sparked a familiar debate about whether two teams at opposite ends of FIFA’s rankings should be sharing the same pitch at all, and laments about how tedious it all was.

There are no such debates in the Asian qualifying groups, as the road to world football’s showpiece event is rarely a smooth one for teams on its biggest continent, especially in the final round.

Yet Saudi Arabia are making it look relatively easy, and Tuesday’s victory over Vietnam in Hanoi was as comfortable as a 1-0 win is ever likely to be. For the most part, the Green Falcons held the Golden Stars at arm’s length and, except for a couple of minutes in the first half and a slightly nervy last five minutes, as you might expect in a game in the final stage of World Cup qualifiers, it was all fairly straightforward for the Saudis. Fans watching back home might not have had much to get excited about in this particular game but they should be starting to feel very good about what is happening on the road to Qatar.

It was not a pretty game but then that is true of many World Cup qualifiers. This is not a match that will live long in anyone’s memory, except perhaps that of Saleh Al-Shehri, who headed home the only goal after 30 minutes.

As a spectacle, this stop-start affair was not anything to write home about, as it became the kind of game that just has to be negotiated safely. Sometimes in international football the journey is enjoyable and thrilling but sometimes it is simply all about getting to where you need to go — and this was definitely a case of the latter.

It leaves the team in a fantastic position, three points clear of Australia at the top of Group B, which few would have predicted as recently as the start of September. Remember, this was dubbed the group of death. Under Herve Renard, however, the Saudis have dropped just two points from their first six games. There have been all kinds of performances so far in the group: a thriller against China, a battle against Australia and a solid win over Oman.

Tuesday’s game was a little different, again: a tough trip to Vietnam to face a team that had lost five out of five and were desperate to end a dismal run. But in the past few months the Saudi fans have seen a team that can defend when it has to, has plenty of options going forward and, when the need arises, can grind out a win.

It looked early on like this one might be an exciting game as the Green Falcons started brightly but the quick breakthrough never quite came. Yet there is a mental strength in this team and, just when Vietnam started to threaten around the half-hour mark, Al-Shehri’s looping header from a fabulous Fahad Al-Muwallad cross took the wind out of their sails.

As against Australia in the goalless draw in Sydney last week, the defense once again looked solid enough despite injuries to key players. Mohammed Al-Yami impressed once more as the understudy to injured first-choice goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, and the holes left by the absent Abdullah Madu and Yasser Al-Shahrani were also filled well.

The only real cause for concern was the inability to kill the game off against opponents clearly low on confidence. When Al-Muwallad had the ball in the net with 15 minutes remaining, the game looked to be finished but it was ruled out by the video assistant referee, somewhat fortuitously from a Vietnamese point of view, for a foul during the build-up by Firas Al-Buraikan. That decision gave the home fans and team a lift but the visitors held firm.

There were a few signs of nerves in the final moments that came from the fact that one slip, one mistake at the back would cost the team two vital points, because a one-goal cushion was always going to feel a little uncomfortable at some point.

In the end, however, it was a deserved win for the Saudis and it means that they can relax for a little while until the qualification campaign resumes in January. Next up is a home game against Oman. It will be far from easy but offers a great opportunity to move onto 19 points, which after seven games would match the team’s total haul from 10 games on the road to Russia.

After that there are away games against Japan and China, before the group stage concludes with a home game against Australia. Most fans would have settled at this stage for just being in the top two, so to be three points clear at the top is impressive indeed.

Renard will be at pains to remind his players, the press and the fans that there is still work to do to reach Qatar. There is — but actually not as much as there might have been at this stage.

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