A return to World Cup 2022 qualifying after 502 days away presents its own pressures for underutilised Saudi Arabia boss Herve Renard.
The international game has been uniquely impacted by the Coronavirus crisis, as quarantine and travel restrictions bite. The Frenchman’s ongoing tour of the Saudi Professional League’s grounds, diligently and enthusiastically documented on his Instagram account, can only partly satisfy a lust for real action.
His Green Falcons, at the time of writing, are fortunate this month to be playing one of three competitive matches across the entire AFC region when Palestine visit on March 30.
November’s pair of friendlies versus Jamaica, indeed, are the only matches the two-time Africa Cup of Nations victor has overseen in more than a year. A sense of frustration must be overwhelming.
Renard’s reaction to his managerial comeback offers intrigue. Will he adopt a conservative streak with his charges second in Group D, albeit with a game in hand on Uzbekistan, or embrace a belated opportunity to inject fresh blood into a group which is showing signs of growing stale?
The original 22-man roster for the double header versus Jamaica contained 14 players with caps counted in single digits. Encouragement from a 3-0 thrashing of the Reggae Boyz’s second string was tempered by the 2-1 loss when the likes of Bayer Leverkusen star Leon Bailey were unleashed.
This was a continuation of the experimental selection taken to the 24th Gulf Cup. Heights reached in the 1-0 semi-final victory against hosts Qatar were crushed in the 1-0 showpiece defeat to unfancied Bahrain, this result casting an uncertain light on his nascent tenure.
Yet the Jamaica squad can also be viewed in a narrow manner. Ettifaq defender Saeed Al Rubaie was the only player chosen who did not belong to an established SPL heavyweight.
Talent runs deep in, arguably, Asia’s second-strongest domestic competition. Renard should tap into it.
This is not to ignore the giants. Al Nassr’s uncapped Abdulelah Al Amri has excelled at centre-back throughout a trying season, so, too, their prodigiously gifted 20-year-old winger Khalid Al Ghannam.
Both, thoroughly, deserve senior debuts.
Defender Ahmed Sharahili, of leaders Al Shabab, has also presented a strong case to move away from being a ‘one-cap wonder’.
Prospects from the wider SPL must come into Renard’s thoughts.
Former Saudi Under-23 winger Hassan Al Amri has shone back in the big time. The 26-year-old’s 11-goal haul is five more than nearest compatriot, Salem Al Dawsari, and just three behind the leading assists figure of eight set by Al Hilal new boy Abdullah Al Hamdan.
Al Fateh sit one spot outside the drop zone, but offer two exciting options.
Forward Ali Al Zaqan has provided five goals and three assists. Right-back Nawaf Boushal, 21, has been the pick of the league in his position, a spell highlighted by the buccaneering run and low finish in November’s 4-0 humbling of Ettifaq.
Ittihad’s Saud Abdulhamid is not the only youthful full-back of immense promise in the Kingdom.
Their strong form is well timed with Hilal right-back Mohammed Al Breik not at his searing best.
Ettifaq’s electric winger Mohammed Al Kuwaykibi is back to full fitness and with three goals plus one assist in his last four SPL run-outs, is approaching peak form. His unpredictable nature and vibrant dribbling offers a willing foil to the indispensable Al Dawsari.
At 26-years old, the time is now to add to the five-cap haul accrued in 2018.
There is plenty for Renard to ponder, especially with the Palestinians providing tough opposition in October 2019’s dreary goalless draw. A few surprises would be welcome.
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