June 26, 2018 / 7:50 AM / 10 months ago

Saudis depart on high note after opening day 'shame'

VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - After Saudi Arabia opened the World Cup with a “shameful” 5-0 humiliation at the hands of hosts Russia, the Asian side showed a marked improvement in their subsequent Group A matches and will go home buoyed by a surprise victory over Egypt on Monday.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group A - Saudi Arabia vs Egypt - Volgograd Arena, Volgograd, Russia - June 25, 2018 Saudi Arabia players celebrate after the match REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

The 2-1 come-from-behind win in Volgograd handed the Green Falcons a first World Cup victory in 24 years and lifted them up to third place in the group — no mean feat considering they were the second-lowest ranked side of the tournament.

That upswing was evident in Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s own description of the tournament as the Argentine-born former Spain international described the defeat against Russia as a shock.

“We were taken by surprise,” he told reporters on Monday.

He went on to commend his players for not letting that game define their World Cup, instead emerging to play faster-paced, more attacking football in their next two fixtures.

The Saudis — the majority of whom play for domestic clubs — were noticeably improved in their second game against two-time world champions Uruguay. They lost 1-0, which restored some pride despite preventing an early elimination.

Salman Al-Faraj went on to score the team’s first goal of the tournament against Egypt after the Saudis were awarded a penalty on the stroke of halftime, before Salem Al-Dawsari slotted home the winning goal in the 95th minute.

“They will be able to tell their children, grandchildren: ‘I scored during a World Cup’,” added Pizzi, who took over as coach in November.

Once back in the kingdom, the Saudis will turn their attention to preparing for next year’s Asian Cup hosted by the United Arab Emirates.

“We will focus on the Asian Cup and I am absolutely convinced, 100 percent sure, that we will continue to improve in the next six months and that we will be able to compete at the highest level and go there to win the cup,” Pizzi said.

While it remains unclear how long Pizzi will stay on at the helm of the Saudi Arabian squad, who have had a high turnover of coaches, the former striker appeared to be taking a long view.

“We need to keep working, we need to be patient, we need to support the team. Nothing can be achieved from one day to another, everything takes time,” Pizzi said.

Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by John O'Brien

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