Neymar says not 100 percent fit for Brazil, compares Saudi league to French


It was just over two years ago that Roberto Mancini was ending Italy’s 52-year drought at the European Championships in London; now he is setting his sights on taking Saudi Arabia to an Asian Cup title for the first time since 1996.

Fittingly, his first two games are also in England as Costa Rica and South Korea head to Newcastle on Friday and Tuesday respectively.

The twin test against Central American and East Asian opposition should give the man who led Manchester City to the most dramatic of English Premier League titles in 2012 — and also took Inter Milan to a hat-trick of Serie A crowns in the decade before that — a good idea of where his team is at.

With the Green Falcons not in action since March and twin defeats against Venezuela and Bolivia, after which Herve Renard left to take over the France women’s national team, Mancini has a blank slate, but one that needs filling quickly.

World Cup qualifiers start in November with games against either Cambodia or Pakistan and then Jordan. More importantly in the short term is January’s Asian Cup and a group containing Thailand, Kyrgyzstan and Oman.

Renard was a respected coach who had delivered success in Africa before leading Saudi Arabia to victory against Argentina at the World Cup in November. Mancini, on the other hand, is regarded as an elite tactician and is a world famous name.

Mancini, who has signed a four-year contract, said: “I believe this is a great opportunity for me to experience football in a new country, especially with the growing popularity of football in Asia.

“The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene.”

The games come at a time when there is huge interest in Saudi Arabian football, with the likes of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema active in the league.

It is now time for domestic talent to show Mancini what it can do. After a decent showing at the World Cup, it is time to go to the next level.

There is no major departure in terms of personnel from Renard’s squads. The biggest club contingent is Al-Hilal, with the other big boys such as Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Shabab also contributing.

Scoring goals is a priority. There have been concerns that with all the fantastic attacking talent coming into the country there will be fewer opportunities for local forwards to get minutes on the pitch.

While there is no doubt that training alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema offers fantastic opportunities to learn, there is still a fight for places at club level.

That is why the likes of Firas Al-Buraikan are vital. The 23-year-old left Al-Nassr in 2021, where he had barely played, and headed to Al-Fateh where he scored regularly and was the fourth highest in the league last season.

It was a hugely impressive feat given that he was not playing for one of the best teams, and given the other goalscoring talent in the league. A big-money move to Al-Ahli last month is not only a measure of his worth, but a chance to show he can score goals to win titles.

With his confidence sky high, it is also a perfect chance for Al-Buraikan to show Mancini that he should be the go-to guy for goals.

Mancini should see the benefits of a stronger league. A number of national team players are shining this season amid the wealth of world-class talent.

Salem Al-Dawsari, now the most experienced international player in the squad, is starting to hit top form for Al-Hilal. The likes of Sultan Al-Ghannam and Abdulrahman Ghareeb are impressing at Al-Nassr, while Al-Hilal’s Saud Abdulhamid has been outstanding.

Goalkeeping could be an issue as foreigners dominate in the position. Raghed Al-Najjar has been called up for a potential debut but has yet to feature for Al-Taawoun this season. With the arrival of Yassine Bounou at Al-Hilal last month, there is unlikely to be much playing time for Mohammed Al-Owais or Mohammed Al-Yami.

That leaves Nawaf Al-Aqidi at Al-Nassr as the only one of four keepers selected who is playing regular football. It is just something that Mancini will have to get used to.

Costa Rica won one game at the World Cup, beating group winners Japan, before losing to Germany and Spain. Since then they have reached the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup where they were defeated 2-0 by Mexico, the same team that ended the Kingdom’s World Cup campaign.

Ranked 46 in the world, eight places higher than the Green Falcons, Los Ticos have players making short journeys to Newcastle, including Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who has had loan experience at Nottingham Forest; Forest’s Brandon Aguilera; and fellow England-based Jewison Bennette of Sunderland. 

A win, then, would be welcome, especially after some poor friendly results in the past couple of years. More important, however, is for Mancini to start building his team for Qatar in January. The road to Doha starts in Newcastle. 



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