By Samindra Kunti in Doha
January 16 – On a night of late drama, Saudi Arabia produced a 96th-minute winner from Ali Al Bulayhi to claim all three points against Oman in a 2-1 victory on Roberto Mancini’s debut at the Asian Cup.
Last September, Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia debut ended in defeat against Venezuela, and for much of the evening in Doha, his first showing in the Asian Cup seemed to be going the same way until substitute Abdulrahman Ghareeb’s wonderful solo goal and Al Bulayhi’s header deep into injury time completed a great comeback.
The Saudis played front-football, often lacking cutting edge in the final third, but came good in the last quarter of the match.
Their campaign had got off to a nightmare start when Salaah Al-Yahyaei converted a penalty in the 14th minute after central defender Hassan Al-Tambakti had tripped Muhsen Al Ghassani in the box. The referee checked the on-field monitor and pointed to the spot after seeing clear contact.
Al-Yahyaei duly sent Ahmed Al Kassar the wrong way, prompting delirium in the Omani end of the stadium.
It was more unwanted attention for the Saudis. The team’s build-up to the tournament had been tumultuous, with manager Mancini excluding goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi, midfielder Salman Al-Faraj and full-back Sultan Al-Ghannam from the squad because the trio did not want to be at camp unless they were guaranteed playing time. Mancini said he only wanted players who fight for their country.
Trailing, the XI on the field had no other choice but to come out and regain a foothold against a composed Omani side, who shocked Saudi Arabia in a friendly last year.
This however was crunch time and the Green Falcons were expected to deliver, with scrutiny of the national team more intense than ever because of Saudi Arabia’s rising global status in the game.
Mancini’s side had a handful of opportunities before the end of the first half: Sami Al-Najei found his way around the Oman back line with a fine run, but from a tight angle all Omani goalkeeper Ibrahim Al-Mukhaini had to do was make himself big enough to block the attempt. Sami Al Najei’s attempt was deflected for a corner and Nasser Al-Dawsari’s drive turned into a swerving shot that went well wide.
Not that Oman were overrun in a first half that intrigued from a tactical point of view with Mancini opting for a 3-5-2 formation while Branko Ivankovic fielded a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. The Omanis often looked to get in behind the Saudi defenders, but offered too little danger, their one attempt – the spot kick – in the first half proving enough to breach the Falcons’ defenses. That didn’t bother the Omani fans, who cheered their team off to the dressing room at the pause.
Mancini had plenty to think about, but sent his players back to the field with an unambiguous message: keep attacking.
The Falcons did, forcing Oman, who kept dropping deeper and deeper, to switch to a back five.
Saudi Arabia pinged the ball around, showing chemistry and attacking guile, but a final product went missing too often, much to the despair of the Saudi fans who had been remarkably quiet in the stands.
The Omani may have been fast out the blocks, but they were struggling to get out of their half for extended periods. But they still lurked on the counter and quick transitions led to a double chance after the hour mark, Mataz Saleh driving straight at the goalkeeper and Al-Yahyaei shooting wide.
Just as Oman regained more of a presence in the game, the Falcons struck in the 78th minute and how: Ghareeb, who had replaced Mukhtar Ali minutes earlier, slalomed his way past three Omani players and dispatched a lethal finish to leave Al-Mukhaini no chance.
The Saudis went in search of a winner and Al-Buhayi had the ball in the back of the net with a powerful header before the flag went up for offside.
What followed was chaos: VAR had a check and the referee appeared to signal that it was no goal – sending the Omani supporters wild – before clarifying his decision, causing pandemonium on the Saudi bench and in the stands. The goal stood, the comeback was complete and Saudi Arabia had their three points.
Contact the writer of this story at email@example.com