Champions League displays could earn Saudi comeback stars a place in Renard’s World Cup plans
Many of those involved in Saudi football will be feeling happy as they watch the country’s clubs in action during the AFC Champions League — but national team coach Herve Renard will surely be more pleased than most.
Results and performances have been good — of the four Saudi teams in the competition, only Al-Taawoun failed to progress to the second round — but there are other reasons why the Frenchman will be smiling.
Renard has been hit with bad news recently about serious injuries to striker Saleh Al-Shehri and midfielder Abdulellah Al-Malki. But a number of players who have been out of the national team spotlight for one reason or another have shown signs in the Champions League that they are returning to fitness and form.
With less than seven months before the Green Falcons take on Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup — a tough first test that will be followed by Group C clashes against Poland and Mexico — there is time for anyone to stake a claim to a place in the squad. This is especially true for those that have impressed in the past.
Saudi Arabia booked their place at the 2022 World Cup with time to spare thanks to stars such as Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari. But in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup the standout star was Nawaf Al-Abed. The midfielder ended up joint top scorer in the final round of qualification with five goals, four of which came in the first four games. But then came injuries and he was left out of the squad for the finals in Russia by coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who had arrived just months earlier. Since then, Al-Abed has continued to struggle for fitness and has hardly played for the national team. He didn’t play much for his club, Al-Hilal, either and in 2020 moved to Al-Shabab.
The ongoing injury problems have limited his time on the field for his new club, too, but Al-Abed has made his presence felt in the AFC Champions League this season. The 32-year-old’s performance in a crucial 3-0 win over Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jayiwa was stunning, one of the best of the round. It was especially impressive because he had barely played a game in the league for the six-time Saudi champions.
If he can remain fit and play his part in the last few games of the domestic season, he might just stay in the mind of Renard. After missing out on the 2018 finals, few would begrudge Al-Abed a second chance of a World Cup debut.
Certainly not club colleague Hattan Al-Bahebri, who said: “Nawaf Al-Abed is a star that we learn from and he has shown the fans what he can do in the Asian Champions League. I am sure he will continue at the same level and, as he is involved more in the matches, he will return to his very best.”
That would be good news for Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Al-Bahebri has his own dreams of once again appearing on the global stage.
“My ambition is to participate with the Saudi national team in the 2022 World Cup,” he said. The 29-year-old made the squad for the finals four years ago and played in all three games. He came off the bench in the 5-0 defeat against hosts Russia in Moscow and started the next two games, against Uruguay and Egypt.
Seven months later, in the 2019 Asian Cup, he played in all four games before Saudi hopes were dashed by a second-round loss to Japan. He featured in four out of the 10 games during the final round of qualification for Qatar, so is not currently a regular starter. But like Al-Abed, his Champions League performances have served as a fine reminder of what he is capable of in terms of making things happen in attack and scoring goals, as demonstrated by a fabulous hat-trick in the 6-0 thrashing of Mumbai City.
Another Al-Shabab player sure to be attracting the attention of Renard is Turki Al-Ammar and the timing is perfect. Crowned the Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2018, he has not quite nailed down an automatic starting spot for club or country but, still only 22 years old, he is improving all the time. His liveliness, close control in tight areas and vision is already among the best in the league and he has caused problems for Asian opposition in recent weeks. A place in the Saudi squad for Qatar is not impossible.
Then there is Abdullah Al-Otayf, another classy operator who has been dealing with injury problems. The midfielder saw only 67 minutes of action for Al-Hilal in the league this season, way back in August. Finally though, he has been approaching a return to fitness. There were suggestions that the 29-year-old might appear in the final Champions League group game against Al-Rayyan this week but coach Ramon Diaz views the domestic league as a safer option to get Al-Otayf more minutes on the field. Again, there is time for him to get back into contention for a place on the national team at the World Cup. He has already played under Renard, who is well aware of what he can do when fully fit.
The French coach might potentially have lost a couple of players — although both Al-Shehri and Al-Malki have time to recover from their knocks — but the events of the past few weeks in Asia have shown that there are other talents ready and waiting to step up.