18/07/2007

Saudi Arabia turn on the Style

When I asked the hotel reception what there was to see in Palembang, the answer was that “this is not a town for tourists”. Fortunately, my time here is very limited – arriving on Air Asia’s flight one day, and leaving on the equivalent return flight 24 hours later. The hotel arranged a taxi to take me through the untidy but busy town centre, across the river and well out of town to the Jaka Baring Stadium. The stadium is a recent addition. It is a generally symmetrical affair with identical stands opposing each other, plus curves of concrete seats behind both goals. In a style familiar of the stadiums built in South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, the front of the stand has a large curved arch made up from a lattice of steelwork. This supports a steel roof that curves back behind the seats. It has a track, so the curves and stands are a long way from the pitch. Again, the crowd was not particularly large, and unlike the match in Vietnam, there is no great support for one team. Most locals have stayed home to watch Indonesia on television.

Saudi Arabia, who lead the group on four points, line up in 4-4-2 formation. Bahrain play 3-5-2 and start the evening on three points – the same as Indonesia in the other group game. The fact that Bahrain have beaten South Korea, but been beaten by Indonesia in group matches drastically effects the combinations should teams finish level on points – but every team except South Korea know that a win will see them through, while the Koreans know they must win, and then they have to hope our game in Palembang does not end in a draw.

The fear for those watching in Palembang (from a neutral point of view) is that South Korea take a conclusive lead early on, and knowing this, our teams settle for a limp draw, but the early play does not support any such assumption, as both teams are going for the win. Saudi Arabia break any deadlock in the 17th minute, when a smartly played dummy leaves Ahmed Al Mousa in space. He drags the ball around the goalkeeper and then avoids the defenders to score. There were more chances at both ends, but the best came in injury time, first Malek beat a defender on the halfway line and ran through unchallenged, but then ballooned the ball just over. The next attack saw Malek receive the ball in a wider position and beating the defence knocked in a good low cross which was met by Abdulrahman Al Qahtani to make the half time score 2-0.

Knowing that the Koreans are winning, and therefore they need just to get a draw to go through, Bahrain start the second half by taking the game to Saudi Arabia. This almost pays off eight minutes in, when Salman gets a shot in from a tight angle on the left, but Saudi goalkeeper Al Mosailem is just up to pushing the ball onto the post. This set the pattern, with Bahrain pushing to try and change the came but Saudi always dangerous on the break. They should have scored in the 64th minute, but substitute Abdoh Autef strayed marginally offside. Bahrain’s chances came to an end in the 67th minute, when Malek attacked on the left and crossed for Taiseer Al Jassam to power in the third Saudi goal. Although Bahrain continued to push at what was clearly a lost cause, this just left them more open to the dangerous Saudi attacks. In the 73 minute, a good piece of football moved the ball to Omar Al Ghamdi – on the touchline about 10 yards from goal on the right – he cut the ball back to give Taiseer an easy finish for his second goal.

In the final fifteen minutes, despite Bahrain continuing to play and open game, all the real chances fell to Saudi Arabia, and in particular to Taiseer, who had two clear chances to complete his hat-trick.

The first was lost when casual shooting allowed his shot to be blocked after good work down the left by Malek and Autef had given him the ball with space and no marker, the second in injury time, when he failed with a header on the rebound after the Bahrain keeper had saved from Saad Al Harthi.

So, the final result was 4-0 – easily enough to see Saudi Arabia return to Jakarta for a quarter final against whichever team finishes second in Group C. It appeared that Bahrain’s insistence on never giving up left the field open for Saudi to play flowing football with style.

South Korea won a nervous game in Jakarta, where we could see from the monitors that they were under pressure for most of the second half, but the hosts did not have the power in front of goal to break the deadlock. South Korea travel to Kuala Lumpur to play Group C winners in the next round.