Change is in the air for Saudi Arabia and other talking points ahead of Uruguay clash

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Redemption will be on the mind of Saudi Arabia when they continue their World Cup 2018-campaign against Group A-favourites Uruguay at Rostov Arena.

The Green Falcons’ wings were clipped on Thursday’s opening night when hosts Russia – the only nation ranked below them by FIFA – inflicted a 5-0 defeat. This was not how the end of a 12-year exile from the global stage had been envisaged and huge changes are now expected.

Their opponents got the job done against a Mohammed Salah-less Egypt on the next day thanks to Atletico Madrid centre-back Jose Gimenez’s towering late header.

Here are the talking points:

IT’S NOT ALL GONE GREEN

Russia's midfielder Yury Zhirkov (l) vies with Saudi Arabia's midfielder Yahya Al Shehri (r).

Russia’s midfielder Yury Zhirkov (l) vies with Saudi Arabia’s midfielder Yahya Al Shehri (r).

The recriminations from Saudi’s Russia routing hang over this second fixture.

Saudi Football Federation president Adel Ezzat labelled the prior performance “totally unsatisfactory”, with influential General Sports Authority chief Turki Al-Sheikh calling his nation’s second-heaviest defeat in World Cup history “a total fiasco.”

The former also singled out goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf, striker Mohammad Al Sahlawi and defender Omar Hawsawi when he ominously told Al-Youm Assabaa newspaper: “Several players will face a penalty.”

It is fair to deduce that this trio will not play against Uruguay. Several other fallen stars could also be dumped on the sidelines, chief of which is Leganes loanee Yahya Al Shehri.

The 27-year-old was brilliant during pre-tournament warm-ups against Italy – in which he scored – and Germany.

But against Russia, the winger contributed zero shots or key passes. A combined six times he was dispossessed or lost the ball because of a bad touch.

How they missed injured Al Hilal winger Nawaf Al Abed.

Further back, lightweight Hilal centre midfielder Abdullah Otayf made one tackle, clearance and interception apiece. Club-mates Abdulmalek Al Khaibri and Mohamed Kanno would better bridge the physical deficit.

STUTTERING SUAREZ

Luis Suarez (l) reacts after his missed chance against Egypt.

Luis Suarez (l) reacts after his missed chance against Egypt.

Uncertainty is a feeling you rarely associate with Uruguay’s Luis Suarez.

The 31-year-old has earned world renown – and infamy – for his deadeye obsession with both scoring goals and gaining victory. Career tallies of 51 goals in 99 internationals and 372 strikes in 561 club appearances says everything you need to know about the efficacy of the multi-faceted Barcelona striker.

This is what makes Friday’s stuttering run-out at Ekaterinburg Arena so peculiar. Doubt riddled his brain when an extra touch was taken in the second half and he barrelled into inspired Al Ahly goalkeeper Mohamed El Shenawy, plus an earlier snatched effort at the back post when a ball bobbled through from a corner.

Suarez got dispossessed, on average, 1.2 times per game in La Liga last term. The figure ballooned to five against the North Africans.

Such moments were reminiscent of the uncertain figure who meandered through the first half of 2017/18 because of a debilitating knee injury.

It could be a case of Suarez needing to get up to speed again. If so, the Saudi defence should prepare for another exacting examination.

FLUID FAHAD BRINGS FIREPOWER

Saudi Arabia's forward Fahad Al-Muwallad (l) and Russia's defender Sergey Ignashevich clash.

Saudi Arabia’s forward Fahad Al-Muwallad (l) and Russia’s defender Sergey Ignashevich clash.

Mistakes weren’t just the sole preserve of the Saudi players at Luzhniki Stadium.

Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s striker-less system utilised against Italy and Germany appeared to represent a fruitful path. Nominal Al Ittihad winger Fahad Al Muwallad’s searing pace and electric feet then unsettled exalted opposition.

But the competitive action saw a retrograde step back to the out-of-sorts No9 Al Sahlawi.

History shows the Saudis do not tolerate embarrassing failure. Brazil’s World Cup 1994-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was sacked by them after two miserable group-stage matches four years later.

To get any sort of redemptive result, goals are key for Saudi – and they’ll need plenty. Opposing strikers Suarez and Edinson Cavani plundered 53 league goals between them in 2017/18.

Atletico centre-backs Diego Godin and Gimenez will envelop Al Sahlawi with ease. A leg race against Al Muwallad is a different proposition.

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Harry Kane comes to rescue of England and other talking points from late 2-1 win v Tunisia at World Cup

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Two-goal captain Harry Kane pounced during second-half injury-time to hand England a 2-1 victory against Tunisia when their Group G-commitments at World Cup 2018 began on Monday.

The Three Lions burst into life from the off at Volgograd Arena and deservedly went ahead on 11 minutes when Tottenham striker Kane followed up Manchester City centre-back John Stones’ superbly saved header.

Gareth Southgate’s men appeared to be coasting towards victory only for a controversial penalty conceded by fellow City defender Kyle Walker for a block on Al Ettifaq attacker Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to force the leveller. Al Nassr midfielder Ferjani Sassi did the rest from 12 yards on 35 minutes.

A valuable win appeared to be evading England, before Kane headed in Leicester City defender Harry Maguire’s flick from another corner at the death.

ENGLAND ARE AN EXCITING WORK IN PROGRESS, TUNISIA HANG TOUGH WITHOUT MSAKNI

Hope rather than expectation defines this World Cup for England.

The usual cloying demands of the media and public are absent, replaced by a dose of reality that Gareth Southgate’s troops remain a work in progress.

From having six shots on target in the first half, their most at a World Cup since 1966, only two more followed after the break. Vitally, the second was Kane’s pressure-relieving clincher.

Predecessor Roy Hodgson’s decision to stick his greatest threat on corner duty during the doomed Euro 2016-campaign now appears even more ridiculous than it did at the time.

In a moment of quiet contemplation back at England’s base, Southgate may worry about a theme that appeared in both warm-up victories against Nigeria and Costa Rica.

Strong starts must be turned into resounding victories, beginning with Sunday’s next meeting with Panama.

As for Tunisia, it was no surprise they weren’t supine. A nine-game unbeaten streak was only ended at the death by Spain in their final friendly.

Head coach Nabil Maaloul will hold two regrets – how his physically superior team could look so skittish at corners and what damage injured forward Youssed Msakni could have caused.

A greater attacking edge could have forced both a historic result and revenge for 1998’s opening loss to the same opposition.

The North Africans are now in the invidious position of needing to force a result against Belgium on Saturday.

LINGARD LACKS KILLER TOUCH

This was a curate’s egg of a display from Jesse Lingard.

The Manchester United youth product symbolised the endeavor inherent to Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 formation.

A series of superb runs and instinctive darts brought him repeatedly into the danger zone, but what stopped this being an exhibition of attacking-midfield play was the glaring – and almost-costly – lack of end product.

From a quartet of presentable first-half chances, the most-difficult – and final – one rolled onto the edge of the post after he bravely latched onto Tottenham right wing-back Kieran Trippier’s delightful long ball.

This followed a strong stop from Nice goalkeeper Mouez Hassen – soon substituted because of injury – from point-blank range in the second minute, a ballooned volley when picked out by club-mate Ashley Young and a blocked half-volley.

This profligacy was amplified by Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling not stepping into the void – he had zero shots before being taken off on 68 minutes.

Even with 10 goals in his last nine internationals, Kane cannot always be counted on to bail them out.

Lingard has a long relationship with Southgate stretching back to the Under-21s. His case for starting in Russia was also forged on the back of a career-best return of 13 goals in 48 run-outs for the Red Devils in 2017/18.

Yet the 25-year-old did not find the back of the net during his last 15 club matches of the season.

A prompt return to goalscoring form is required to quell the case for Chelsea-owned centre midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who impressed off the substitutes’ bench along with United forward Marcus Rashford.

VAR CRIES OUT FOR CONSISTENCY

The Video Assistant Referee system has largely been a force for good in Russia.

Warnings from Luddites that the game’s very soul would be lost by its introduction have proved predictably shortsighted. On Monday alone, Sweden’s penalty justified its inclusion.

Unsurprisingly though, teething problems do exist. The main one being a lack of consistency with its use in the penalty area.

VAR is supposed to be used to correct ‘clear and obvious errors’. How the repeated rugby tackles in the penalty box by Sassi and centre-back Yassine Meriah on Kane didn’t merit second view is dumbfounding.

This is without wading into the subjective decision about whether Walker’s slight infringement did not warrant being cancelled out upon review.

Tunisia v England: Group G - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

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Captain Harry Kane doubles up at death to hand England late victory v Tunisia at World Cup 2018

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Two-goal captain Harry Kane pounced during second-half injury-time to hand England a 2-1 victory against Tunisia when their Group G-commitments at World Cup 2018 began on Monday.

The Three Lions burst into life from the off at Volgograd Arena and deservedly went ahead on 11 minutes when Tottenham striker Kane followed up Manchester City centre-back John Stones’ superbly saved header.

Gareth Southgate’s men appeared to be coasting towards victory only for a controversial penalty conceded by fellow City defender Kyle Walker for a block on Al Ettifaq attacker Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to force the leveller. Al Nassr midfielder Ferjani Sassi did the rest from 12 yards on 35 minutes.

A valuable win appeared to be evading England, before Kane headed in Leicester City defender Harry Maguire’s flick from another corner at the death.

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