JAKARTA: Do not be fooled by the 3-0 scoreline: Saudi Arabia’s struggles in front of goal are not limited to Juan Antonio Pizzi’s national team. The Kingdom’s U23 side comfortably defeated Myanmar last night at the Wibawa Mukti Stadium to plant one foot in the Asian Games knockout stages, but this was by no means a display of prolificacy.
Two penalties by Al-Ahli’s 21-year-old midfielder Abdulrahman Ghareeb had given the Young Falcons the lead, but for 89 minutes it felt like a goal from open play would simply never arrive. Finally, after 21 shots, 10 on target, and with Myanmar committing bodies forward in search of a lifeline, substitute Mutib Al-Banaqi of Al-Nassr was fed through the middle, rounded the goalkeeper and slipped the ball into an empty net. Coach Saad Al-Shehri dropped to his knees; his prayers finally answered.
“Thanks to God for this win,” Al-Shehri told Arab News afterwards.
“We played against a team that plays zone defense and we tried to break that down without making mistakes in midfield. We were sure we could create the space and score and we managed to create a lot of chances, but it’s true we had problems to score.”
Al-Shehri had opted to name an unchanged side to that which drew 0-0 with Iran in searing temperatures just 48 hours earlier, yet there were few signs of fatigue. The defensive pairing of captain Awn Al-Saluli and Abdulelah Al-Amri dealt with everything tidily as they kept their second successive cleansheet, while Ahli right-back Abdullah Tarmin demonstrated impressive reading of the game. Tarmin’s domestic teammate Ayman Al-Khulaif pulled the strings further forward.
It was Al-Khulaif, 21, who latched on to a cross-field pass in the 14th minute, volleying it back across goal only to see defender Nanda Kyaw’s hand block the trajectory. The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Ghareeb sent goalkeeper Kyaw-Zin Htet the wrong way to open Saudi’s Asian Games account.
If the deadlock being broken was supposed to prompt a deluge of goals, it never arrived. Center-half Abdulelah Al-Amri missed two unmarked headers, Ghareeb toed wide after combining well with Saad Al-Selouli, and Yousef Saad Al-Harbi forced an excellent save with a shot from distance. Even when Saudi came closest to doubling their lead, it came from Myanmar captain Zaw-min Tun deflecting a bobbled cross onto the post.
“I am disappointed that we missed so many chances because we made good combination plays and worked good space to score goals,” said Al-Shehri. “Clearly we need to work on this, our play in attack, but don’t forget it’s important to create chances too. With time the players will improve in front of goal. For the next game, this will be our focus — improve our composure in attack while also keeping a strong defense.”
Just like in the first half, 14 minutes after the restart and with Haroune Camara spurring a series of chances, Al-Khulaif collected the ball and once more won a spot-kick, the diminutive Al-Ahli winger going to ground theatrically just inside the area. Myanmar were furious, but Ghareeb was composed again, shooting it calmly to the goalkeeper’s left.
“I think we played a good game, but now we must focus on the next match against North Korea,” said Al-Khulaifi, who will miss Monday’s final group game through suspension. “All the talk about not scoring enough goals is just talk. We hear it, but next game will be better.”
Despite the Asian Games forcing countries to play three group-stage games in the space of five days, perplexingly Al-Shehri did not make a single change until the 77th minute, when he introduced Al-Banaqi, who would finally add the flourish.
“I’m pleased for Mutib,” said Al-Shehri, whose side can top the group after Iran defeated North Korea 3-0. “I have a big squad and not everybody can play, so the players who get a chance need to show me they are ready.”
Emotions threatened to spill over late-on when perceived simulation by Ghareeb directly in front of the Myanmar bench prompted accusations of theatrics from Myanmar coach Antoine Hey. Al-Shehri reacted angrily, screaming at Hey and having to be held back by his assistants. There was no handshake on the final whistle.
“I don’t like this,” Hey, a former Schalke midfielder who spent two years at Birmingham City, told Arab News. “We have a situation where their player is rolling around in front of our area pretending he has been fouled when he was not even touched. That’s not sportsmanlike behavior. We are always talking about fair play, but then we have this. Maybe their coach has never played in his career, but in my playing days this would not have happened.”
Earlier in the day, Palestine failed to hold on to a lead against Hong Kong when Yousuf Mahmoud’s early goal was canceled out by Ka Wai
Lam. Bahrain, humbled 6-0 by favorites South Korea earlier in the week, meanwhile relied on an injury-time equalizer to snatch a point against Kyrgyzstan.