Saudi Arabia U20 coach warns against complacency ahead of crucial Australia clash
LONDON: Saudi Arabia will qualify for back-to-back U20 World Cups for the first time in nearly 30 years if they beat Australia on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the U19 AFC Asian Championships in Indonesia.
And while the Young Falcons will arrive as favorites following a perfect start, coach Khalid Abdullah Atawi has warned his side to be prepared for a fight against a team with more experienced players.
Only Brazil have appeared at more U20 World Cups than Australia and Young Socceroos head coach Ante Milicic can call upon players registered to clubs from the English Premiership, Championship, German Bundesliga and Dutch Eredivisie. In contrast, the squad of Saudi Arabia — who last qualified for two successive U20 World Cups when the Kingdom hosted the event in 1989 — is based entirely at home.
Yet it is the Young Falcons who will enter the Patriot Chandrabhaga Stadium in Bekasi, an hour east of Jakarta, more confident and better rested. While Australia squeezed through in second place in Group C following a tense 1-1 draw with Jordan, Saudi recorded wins over Malaysia and China enabling Atawi to rest 10 players for their 2-1 victory over Tajikistan.
“For me it is a difficult game against the Australian team,” Atawi said. “They are strong physically, technically and tactically. They have more players playing at a professional level in Europe. I’m very happy to be at this level of competition, and this was one of our goals before we started this championship.”
The top four teams at the regional finals qualify for next May’s U20 World Cup in Poland. Japan and Qatar confirmed their qualification with wins yesterday while Saudi, who have appeared eight times previously at the age-group tournament and reached the last-16 in 2017, can surpass Egypt to become the Arab country with the most appearances should they triumph today.
“From our side, to be in this position was one of our goals,” said Atawi, who is hunting a seventh consecutive win after also impressively negotiating U19 qualifying. “Now we have to reach a new level to qualify for the World Cup. Inshallah we have good luck and can we take the next step. We have prepared a large number of players for the first team and they all have the goal of playing in the World Cup.”
Safi Al-Zaqarta was the hero of the hour against Tajikistan, scoring two goals in quick succession on his first appearance to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory. The Al Ahli striker is not expected to retain his place in the team however, with a host of rested players likely to be recalled. Chief among them will be Turki Al-Ammar, the Al-Shabab midfielder who scored and was named Man of the Match in the 2-1 win over Malaysia.
Although Australia have a strong history at this age-group level, they have failed to qualify for the previous two iterations and before that were eliminated at the group stage of each tournament since 2003. Coach Milicic, who helped his country reach the semifinals as a player in 1993, is urging his side to grasp the opportunity to play on the world stage.
“Going back to the early 90s, Australia has a proud history in World Youth Cups and this group has an opportunity to now be part of that,” Milicic said. “They understand that opportunities, particularly at the start of your career, don’t come around a lot. That’s the motivation. Everyone knows how big a game it is.”
The Young Socceroos have had to battle illness and inclement weather to reach the quarter-finals, but have a full squad to choose from for tonight’s match, which kicks off at 3.30pm Makkah time. Ipswich Town youngster Ben Folami is certain to retain his place on the left wing after impressive performances, while Con Ouzounidis will start in the heart of defense after slotting in comfortably against Jordan on his return from suspension.
“The group that we had to go through was extremely difficult and we know we have another difficult game against Saudi Arabia,” Milicic said, citing the evolution of senior Saudi players such as Yahya Al-Shehri and Nawaf Al-Abed as proof the Gulf side are producing talent. “Not only do they have a good team, they have a good squad. They’re very strong all around [and] their future is very bright.
“But at the same time, my team has overcome a lot of difficulties, and we believe that — in a one-off game — we are able to produce a positive performance. And hopefully for us that leads to a positive result.”