Saudi Arabia’s Pizzi optimistic despite World Cup challenges

HONG KONG: Juan Antonio Pizzi has been given little time to prepare Saudi Arabia for their World Cup return and, with just over three months until they open the tournament against the hosts, the Argentine is continuing his search for solutions.
Pizzi’s side handed Moldova a 3-0 defeat last week before suffering a 4-1 loss at the hands of Iraq in an exhibition game laid on to showcase the ability of the hosts to hold matches safely in the war-ravaged nation.
As the game in Basra was in part a diplomatic mission played out with a weakened side, it was the win in Jeddah last Tuesday over Moldova — secured with goals from Omar Hawsawi, Taisser al Jassim and Mohanad Aseri — that had Pizzi purring.
“The performance was good as the players were up to the task and they achieved a positive result,” said the 49-year-old, who was appointed coach at the end of November.
“The coherence of the players was really clear, whether in the training sessions or in the match. I hope we can continue with the same passion and success in the next matches in preparation for the World Cup.”
Despite his optimism, Pizzi has been given a tough task with little more than six months to instil his ideas in the team after becoming the third coach at the helm of the Saudi side since September.
Dutchman Bert van Marwijk succeeded in getting the country to the World Cup finals for the first time since 2006 but was unable to agree an extension to his contract with the federation and will now take Australia to Russia.
He was replaced by Edgardo Bauza, whose stint was short-lived as defeats against Portugal and Bulgaria prompted the federation to pull the trigger and hire his compatriot Pizzi in his place.
Pizzi led the country to the keenly contested Gulf Cup, but the Saudis exited at the end of the group stage of the regional competition with a 2-0 loss at the hands of eventual champions Oman in their final game.
The former Chile coach’s mission has been complicated by the decision to place nine of the country’s leading players with first and second division clubs in Spain in an attempt to fast track their development ahead of the finals.
The initiative of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and the country’s General Sports Authority in conjunction with La Liga has hit something of a roadblock, however.
While Pizzi will be keen for his top players get plenty of football before Russia, none of those involved in the project, including key players Fahad al Muwallad, Yahya al Shehri and Salem al Dawsari, have made an appearance to date.
With time running out, and friendlies lined up later this month against Ukraine and Belgium, Pizzi will be hoping the lack of game time for some of his key performers will not have an adverse impact on a squad.
In addition to hosts Russia, the Green Falcons will face Egypt and Uruguay in opening round Group A at the June 4 to July 15 tournament. — Reuters