Juan Antonio Pizzi thinks his Saudi Arabia team could be unstoppable in the 2019 Asian Cup if they manage to consistently reproduce the sort of display that saw them hammer North Korea 4-0 in their opener.
Although Pizzi’s men were boosted by the sending off of Han Kwang-song just before half-time, Saudi Arabia were already 2-0 up and well on their way to three points.
As such, Saudi Arabia look well placed to progress to the knockout phase for the first time since 2007, when they finished runners-up.
Up next on Saturday is a meeting with a Lebanon side who lost 2-0 to Qatar in their opening game, meaning Saudi Arabia should be confident of moving on to six points.
But Pizzi is looking even further ahead than that match and potential progression, suggesting Saudi Arabia will get close to winning the trophy provided they play like they did in their opening game.
“If the team continues at the level that they did against North Korea, it will be difficult for any other nation in the tournament to defeat us,” Pizzi said in his pre-match news conference.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) 8 January 2019
“We are ready for [Lebanon], we hope to apply what we planned for in the match. We trust in our abilities and will look to impose our philosophy.
“I previously said at the beginning of the tournament that every team has its strong points, and I think Lebanon are ready to match our strengths. We know the only way to win is to do our best.”
Against Qatar, Lebanon were certainly not swept aside with ease, but they struggled to really threaten their opponents, having just a single shot on target in the entire match.
With Saudi Arabia heading into Saturday’s game full of confidence, Lebanon will need to be sharper at both ends of the pitch.
Lebanon coach Miodrag Radulovic accepts a lack of experience could be counting against his players, while he also rued their focus, but he is hopeful of a complete transformation on Saturday.
“Maybe we don’t have experience in such a competition and maybe we lost some concentration and were unlucky against Qatar,” he said.
“But now I hope it will be totally different from the start. I hope tomorrow [Saturday] we will be serious and disciplined from the first minute to the end of the game.
“It will be difficult, but everything is possible. I respect Saudi Arabia, but I respect my team, and I believe in the character and quality of my players.
“There’s still two games, everything is open, we are going game by game.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Lebanon – Mehdi Khalil
Saudi Arabia showed signs of real slickness in their first game, and they were well worth a 4-0 win. With that in mind, Lebanon goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil can expect a busy day. He made three saves against Qatar, but he will likely need to be even more effective if Saudi Arabia are to be kept at bay.
Saudi Arabia – Hussain Almoqahwi
Several Saudi Arabia players caught the eye against North Korea, but Almoqahwi was arguably the standout. He delivered 12 crosses, completed 93.8 per cent of his 97 passes and 73 of them were in the attacking half. Lebanon cannot be expected to play open, expansive football, so the creative talents of Almoqahwi – who set up the second goal last time out – could be crucial.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– This will be the first encounter at the Asian Cup between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
– Lebanon are looking to avoid successive defeats in the Asian Cup for the first time in their history.
– Saudi Arabia will be looking to win their opening two Asian Cup group games for the first time since 1996 – the last time they won the competition, eventually defeating the United Arab Emirates on penalties.
– Lebanon have conceded in each of their four Asian Cup matches, letting in nine goals in total (averaging 2.3 goals per game).
– Saudi Arabia kept their first clean sheet in seven Asian Cup group-stage games in their last game against North Korea. Saudi Arabia last secured successive group stage shutouts in the 2000 edition.
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