It has been more than a decade since the Green Falcons last spread their wings on the global stage.
This situation would have seemed unfathomable between 1994-2006, when World Cups were made as a matter of course thanks to the legendary endeavours of forward Sami Al Jaber, goalkeeper Mohamed Al Deayea and Co. But malfunction was then to ravage the Middle East’s football powerhouse.
That is before 2015’s revelatory appointment of Bert van Marwijk.
The man who led his native Netherlands to defeat in the final of the 2010 event engineered a stunning Road to Russia. Their swashbuckling path was secured in fitting fashion when electric Al Ittihad winger Fahad Al Muwallad rocketed in a stunning winner against Japan to nudge Australia out of the automatic berths.
Then the discord and institutional breakdowns reappeared.
A new contract for the visionary Van Marwijk was ripped up in September. Immediate replacement Edgardo Bauza was poached from the UAE in the aftermath of their failure to gain entrance – and then swiftly dismissed on November 22 after five unsatisfactory matches.
Ex-Chile head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is now the man at the helm. His challenge to navigate a generous Group A is a complex one.
A brainwave to send the nation’s brightest talents on loan to Spain in January then saw key attackers Al Muwallad, Yahya Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari barely make any matchday squads. Elsewhere, attempts have been made to identify support for prolific, but recently misfiring, Al Nassr striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi.
Supreme Al Hilal midfielder Nawaf Al Abed misses the tournament after being unable to fully recover from groin surgery, while club-mate Salman Al Faraj has only recently recovered from long-term injury. All the players above, plus the likes of Al Ahli Jeddah veteran Taisir Al Jassim and exciting Hilal full-back Yasser Al Shahrani, possess talent to grace a global stage.
But the recent managerial merry-go-round and La Liga experiment have only served to make their job in Russia more difficult, following the enviable collective identity forged by Van Marwijk.
Dreams of matching 1994’s run to the round of 16 appear distant.
Mohammad Al Sahlawi
If the Saudis are to get the goals needed to make a second-ever knockouts appearance, Al Sahlawi, 30, is their solitary source.
A tally of more than 25 international strikes speak of his quality. The only worry is fact this lethality has gone missing, of late, on the international stage.
Juan Antonio Pizzi
Pizzi took the reins from fellow Argentinian Bauza last November, but has struggled for consistency since. In his previous post with Chile, victory in the 2016 Copa America did not inspire a berth at the World Cup.
Will hope to avoid a repeat of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s mid-event sacking in 1998.
With more than 130 international caps earned, Hawsawi has experience in bundles. Yet this will be the ex-Anderlecht player’s first World Cup and there are fears at 34-years old he is creaking.
Won’t relish facing Uruguay’s fearsome attack of Luis Suarez, Edinson Canvani etc.
Fahad Al Muwallad
Al Muwallad, 23, has packed a lot into his promising career.
Since debuting for Ittihad aged just 16, he’s gone on to terrorise opposition full-backs across Asia. The pocket-sized winger must hope he’s not collected too much dust on the sidelines at Levante during his half-season loan.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Three managers since they qualified to World Cup 2018 – Van Marwijk, Pizzi and Bauza.
– It’s 12 years since Saudi Arabia last appeared at a World Cup, where they lost all three group games in Germany.
– 16 goals scored by striker Al Sahlawi in qualifying, joint best with UAE’s Ahmed Khalil and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski.
71 DEF 72 MID 71 ATT
World Cups competed at
Five (First in 1994)
World Cup record
P13, W2, D2, L9
Round of 16 (1994)
P18, W12, D3, L3
Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al Owais (Al Ahli Jeddah), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli Jeddah), Abdullah Al Mayouf (Al Hilal)
Defenders: Mansoor Al Harbi (Al Ahli Jeddah), Yasser Al Shahrani, Mohammed Al Breik (both Al HIlal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli Jeddah), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al Hilal)
Midfielders: Abdullah Al Khaibari (Al Shabab Riyadh), Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taisir Al Jassim (Al Ahli Jeddah), Housain Al Mogahwi (Al Ahli Jeddah), Salman Al Faraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab Riyadh), Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al Shehri (Al Nassr), Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad)
Forwards: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli Jeddah)
A once-promising tournament has been made tougher since the break-up with Van Marwijk. Will do well to secure a runners-up spot.
Rashford opened the scoring with a blistering strike in the final pre-tournament friendly on Thursday, giving manager Gareth Southgate a timely reminder of his skills with a bright, attacking display.
Southgate must now consider whether the Manchester United forward has done enough to earn a starting shirt against Tunisia on June 18 but would need to rejig his system or drop Raheem Sterling to make room.
“Of course he has given Gareth Southgate something to think about, but if he plays Rashford as an attacking player does that mean Raheem doesn’t play?” Barnes told Press Association Sport.
“Raheem will start, for me, and I think Gareth likes Jesse Lingard too. Is Rashford on form? One goal in one game isn’t form because he hasn’t been doing that all season.
“Form isn’t one game before the World Cup, it’s achieved over a consistent period of time.
“But the good thing is he’s given you a problem, you know coming off the bench he give you something. It’s pleasing to know you can rely on him but I don’t believe he will necessarily start.”
Barnes, who is a Lidl grassroots ambassador, has been impressed by the efforts England have made to connect with fans, with squad members speaking openly and honestly in the media and a handful of players stopping late in the evening at Elland Road to sign shirts and pose for pictures with fans.
He also believes they will reach the quarter-finals in Russia and have a chance to do even better.
“They’ve made a conscious effort to get the fans on their side, there’s harmony,” he said.
“Stopping and signing autographs, taking selfies – that’s not a very modern Premier League thing to do. Players these days can be a little detached from their communities but they’ve clearly made an effort to change that.
“Going to this World Cup I think they can beat anyone but a feature of this young, inexperienced team is that they are going to be inconsistent.
“At times they will be brilliant and at times they’ll be okay. I expect quarter-finals. From there they’d have to put together three very good performances against the likes of Germany, Spain, Brazil.
“Of course they can win it but I won’t put any pressure on them. At the Euros in two years or the next World Cup there’ll be more demands.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
For a country that has a proud tradition of neutrality, it comes as no surprise that their football team is often shy of attacking.
World Cup history suggests Switzerland like to shut up shop before they cash in. They did not concede at the 2006 World Cup, and let in just the one goal four years later. All they had to show for it was respective round-of-16 and group stage exits, scoring just five goals in that seven game span.
Perhaps inspired by Brazilian flair, Switzerland danced to the tune of a samba beat in South America in 2014 and shook off those ‘solid, if not spectacular’ shackles.
A last-ditch winner against Ecuador, a 5-2 thumping at the hands of France and then a Xherdan Shaqiri hat-trick against Honduras – the Swiss were on a roll.
All the nervousness that comes with a knockout game appeared as they were knocked out by finalists Argentina after extra-time in the next round, but even still, there was potential to work with.
Now worry has resurfaced. Having been pipped to the automatic spot by Portugal during the qualifiers, the Swiss squeaked past plucky Northern Ireland thanks to a big dose of drama.
In the first leg of the play-off, Vladimir Petkovic’s side were awarded a penalty after the ball was smashed, at close range, into Corry Evans and it ricocheted off his arm.
The decision did not go down well in Belfast. Back at St Jakob Park, where Switzerland had only lost once in 16 years, it was Northern Ireland who looked the superior side even though the hosts bumbled through.
In Shaqiri, the Swiss have a winger of genuine world-class ability who has not truly kicked on since starring in Brazil. With all respect to Stoke, Shaqiri would be playing his football 40 miles north in Manchester if he had.
Those two are the least of Petkovic’s problems, though – Haris Seferovic is the latest striker to fall foul of the boo-boys after falling flat in the play-offs.
There is hope. The injury stricken Schalke striker Breel Embolo may yet provide the solution and that Swiss solidity is a platform to be built upon, not sniffed at.
The one player who can be relied upon to inject Switzerland with some unpredictability. An expert set-piece taker, as seen in the Premier League with Stoke, and though his nickname ‘Alpine Messi’ may be a misnomer he does have a penchant for the spectacular.
Sarajevo-born Petkovic has been based in Switzerland for the majority of his managerial career, but in his one season with Lazio lifted the Coppa Italia. Under pressure to boost his side’s anemic attack – has enough tools at his disposal to at least make a good fist of it.
The wing-back has been in the professional game since 2001, but at the age of 34, he is no longer first-choice for Juventus and will leave this summer. He will be an extremely experienced voice in the dressing room – but can he still lead by example on the pitch?
A man featured on many ‘youngsters to watch’ shortlists as a teenager, the now 21-year-old has had his progress stunted by injuries. At his best, powerful, pacy and composed in front of goal – could well start up front given the lack of options.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Josef Hugl scored a national record six goals when leading Switzerland to the quarterfinals of the 1954 World Cup
– This is Switzerland’s 11th World Cup. They have a history in the competition dating back to 1934
– Switzerland went the entirety of their 2006 World Cup campaign without conceding – 559 minutes – but lost on penalties to Ukraine in the last-16
78 DEF 77 MID 76 ATT
World Cups competed at
11 (First in 1934)
World Cup record
P33, W11, D6, L16
Quarter-finals (1934, 1938 & 1954)
P12, W10, D1, L1
Goalkeepers: Y. Sommer (Borussia Monchengladbach), R. Burki (Borussia Dortmund), Y. Mvogo (Leipzig).
Defenders: S. Lichtsteiner (Juventus), J. Djourou (Antalyaspor), R. Rodriguez (Milan), F. Schar (Deportivo La Coruna), F. Moubandje (Toulouse), M. Lang (Basel), M. Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), N. Elvedi (Borussia Monchengladbach).
Midfielders: V. Behrami (Udinese), X. Shaqiri (Stoke), G. Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), B. Zemaili (Bologna), G. Xhaka (Arsenal), S. Zuber (Hoffenheim), R. Freuler (Atalanta), D. Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach).
Strikers: H, Seferovic (Benfica), J. Drmic (Borussia Monchengladbach), B. Embolo (Schalke), M. Gavranovic (Dinamo Zagreb).
Switzerland are favourites for Group E’s runners-up spot. A well-oiled machine needs to use its gears in attack to progress much further.