Saudi Arabia was dumped of for the AFC Asian Cup at the hands of a strong South Korean side, taking their round of 16 to penalties where they would lose 4-2 on penalties with the added drama of Roberto Mancini storming down the tunnel prior to the deciding penalty being kicked, with this becoming the biggest talking point of the game.
Going into the Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia was in top form on a five-game unbeaten run with three wins and three draws; Mancini's men would head to Qatar brimming with confidence and would continue winning their first two games, the first being a 2-1 win against Oman and then a 2-0 win against Kyrgyzstan sealing their place in the knockout stages were they would be set to take on firm favourites South Korea, and despite going 1-0 up through Abdullah Radif, Cho Gue-Sung would equalise in the dying minutes of the game to send the game to extra time and then penalties.
A Strain On The Relationship
Roberto Mancini's actions created a fire in Saudi Arabian News outlets, with many claiming that the former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss would have never done the same if he was still with the Italian national team, and whilst Mancini did apologise, claiming that he didn't realise the game had finished, despite the apology his actions still show that the tensions are high within the camp, as it contrasts words that were spoken at the press conference 24 hours prior after the news that he would be leaving out Salman al-Faraj, Sultan al-Ghannam and Nawaf al-Aqidi as he accused the trio of trying to pick and chose which games that they play, claims that these players have denied and now Mancini has been accused of a similarly lacking commitment to the cause.
Mancini was also questioned by leaving some of the usually established stars at home, such as bringing on the 21-year-old Abdullah Radif against Korea, whose sharpness caused a lot of problems; an additional surprise to the squad was 16-year-old Talal Haji, who came close to getting on the scoresheet against Thailand, both showing promising signs for the future, however, maybe it wasn't the right decision for a major tournament.
What Are The Next Steps For Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia's exit from the Asian Cup is a blip in their roadmap as they did perform well overall in their group, winning two games and drawing one. They would have had little change either way, as they would have faced a tough test in the round of 16 either way. Ultimately it was a lack of tactical direction that sent the game to extra time and then penalties, however, in the overall picture, in their last ten games, including this tournament, they have won six games, drawn two, and only lost twice, with this being their first loss since their game against Mali in October 2023.
Additionally, in their group for World Cup Qualification, Saudi Arabia currently sits in first place with six points from their first two games so far and looks to be the strongest team within their group that consists of Pakistan, Tajikistan and Jordan, with a doubleheader home and away coming up against second place Tajikistan, if results go their way it could help make their journey to a repeat appearance at a World Cup even more likely.