JAKARTA: Saudi Arabian coach Saad Al-Shehri promised his U23 side will find their scoring boots after twice striking the woodwork on Wednesday night during a scoreless draw with Iran in the opening match of their Asian Games campaign in Indonesia.
At the Wibawa Mukti Stadium, the Young Falcons demonstrated impressive technique, particularly the midfield pairing of Al-Shabab’s Nasser Al-Omran and Al-Ahli’s Yousef Al-Harbi, but ultimately failed to take their chances against an Iran side happy to defend deep and play on the counter-attack.
“We played well, but not very well,” said coach Al-Shehri. “With the players we have, a better result was possible. The first match of any tournament is difficult and we played against a team who have a strong defense and implement fast transitions. We made three or four chances to score, so cannot be too disappointed. This is just the start though and we have at least two more matches. Now we must improve — and we will.”
As early as the sixth minute, Al-Qadisiyah striker Haroune Camara showed glimpses of why national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi had been tempted to take him to the World Cup this summer.
The strapping 20-year-old outmuscled two Iranian defenders before rounding the goalkeeper, but his shot at goal was bundled on to the post by a back-tracking defender. A minute later, Al-Ahli playmaker Ayman Al-Khulaif could have opened the scoring, but saw his tame shot cleared off the line.
“We tried our best, but we did not have luck to win,” said Abdulrahman Ghareeb, the diminutive Al-Ahli midfielder. “I promise in the next two games we will be better and get the results required to progress. We played well and remain confident.”
For all Saudi’s dominance, it was Iran who could have gone in with a goal advantage at the break when a defensive mix-up allowed Mohammedreza Azadi Andizeh to toe-poke past Mohammed Ayami in the Saudi goal. This time it was left to Abdullah Tarmin to clear off the line at the other end. And while Alyami was called into action again early in the second period, with the temperature recorded at 34 degrees Celsius, the intensity unsurprisingly waned as the game went on.
“Always, when the weather is hot like this, it makes problems and we saw that in the second half,” said Al-Shehri.
“We talked to the players at half-time about how to maintain the physical level until the end because if you play against a team like Iran that plays counter attack, you need to be wary of leaving big spaces in behind.”
Al-Shehri’s words seemed to work. In added time, and with a flurry of late substitutes sucking all rhythm out of the contest, a final energetic Saudi attack resulted in Nawaf Al-Habashi latching on to a smart cut-back from the byline and firing toward goal. Once again, however, there was a roadblock in the way as the ball cannoned back off the far post.
“We need to improve the team’s personality and build a good squad for the next tournament, the U23 Asian Cup,” said Al-Shehri. “That is what we are trying to do here. Win games, but also build a team that can qualify for Tokyo 2020.”
There is no time to waste in their quest — the Young Falcons are back in action on Friday, against Myanmar.