It was a truly epic game in Jeddah.
The record books will show a 3-2 win for Saudi Arabia over China, but will not show what an intense match this was over 90 minutes, plus nine minutes of added time.
There was a lot to take in, but perhaps the overwhelming feeling was that this was the kind of game that every team needs, a shared experience that will bring the players together. It was a battle that Saudi Arabia came through if not unscathed, then unbeaten, and looking good for the 2022 World Cup.
This Saudi team remains the only one of the 12 in the final round of qualification with the maximum 12 points from the first four games. With only the top two of the six-team groups rewarded with an automatic place in Qatar, there is still work to do, but the Green Falcons have already done a lot. That was certainly the case on Tuesday.
The first half was a stroll, with Sami Al-Najei making a difference. It was perhaps no surprise that the Chinese defense failed to close him down as quickly as they should have for the opening goal. The Al-Nassr man was something of a shock selection, with either Abdulrahman Ghareeb or Abdulrahman Al-Aboud expected to get the nod. Cutting in from the left, the 24-year-old thrilled the home fans with the cleanest of hits from just outside the area and the hosts had their lead.
What next? Pleasingly, they kept pushing forward. Events elsewhere during the day had demonstrated that a single-goal lead is a flimsy one. Saudi Arabia pressed hard from the front, giving the Chinese defense the kind of time and space they would usually expect on a busy Shanghai or Beijing road.
In short, there is a new self-belief in this team. This is understandable, given recent results — going into this clash, the team were on an eight-game winning streak. Everyone wanted the ball, everyone wanted to get at the visitors, and everyone seemed confident that goal number two and three points would come.
If anything, there was perhaps a little bit too much confidence and the high line that the Saudi backline employed was risky. It was almost punished after 34 minutes when a delicious turn from Zhang Yuning in the middle was followed by a smart pass to release Wu Lei. The Espanyol forward shot fiercely from inside the area, but Mohammed Al-Owais, a goalkeeper in great form, produced a top-class save. It was a warning shot, and a reminder that while China were underdogs, they are no Asian minnows.
Then Al-Najei, who had never scored for his country in seven international appearances, struck again. It was a real poacher’s goal. He gambled at the far post and was rewarded with a looping cross that he steered home with a well-placed knee. If Fahad Al-Muwallad had demonstrated such composure moments later when he blasted wide with only the goalkeeper to beat, the game would have been over.
At the break, it seemed so easy, but within seconds of the restart, everything changed. China coach Li Tie threw on two of his Brazilians and one, Aloisio scored almost instantly with a spectacular looping volley.
Herve Renard bemoaned his players’ lack of focus in the second half, but with that goal the match was transformed. The visitors were looking lively and this was now a real test. The East Asians looked like a different team and there were real worries when Al-Owais had to go off injured midway through the second half after a heavy challenge from Ai Kesen, the third Brazilian to be introduced.
That lengthy stoppage amounted to almost 10 minutes and disrupted China’s momentum and soon after the hosts restored their two goal advantage. Firas Al-Buraikan, the super sub who also scored against Japan, came off the bench to fire home from close range.
The goal took the wind out of Chinese sails, but there was still time for the visitors to reduce the arrears thanks to an error from substitute shot-stopper Fawaz Al-Qarni. Saudi Arabia hung on for the win.
It was a vital victory that moves the team three points clear at the top. Trips to Australia and Vietnam in November will go a long way to deciding whether this is a stroll to Qatar, similar to the first half in Jeddah, or a fight until the end, the way Tuesday’s game turned out.