A heavyweight clash awaits at Sharjah Stadium on Monday when record four-time champions Japan meet three-time winners Saudi Arabia in Asian Cup 2019’s round of 16.
This match will pit a number of the continent’s most-talented players against each other, plus entrants to last year’sWorld Cup.
Japan’s new generation have underwhelmed to date in the UAE, but managed to earn top spot in a taxing Group F. The Saudis ended with defeat in Group E after they swept aside 10-man North Korea and Lebanon.
Here are the talking points:
SAUDI’S UNSUNG HEROES
All signs pointed to Al Hilal winger Salem Al Dawsari grasping this tournament for the Green Falcons.
He’d played against Real Madrid when on loan at Villarreal last term and then scored the late, late winner against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt at the summer’s World Cup.
A delightful solo goal followed against North Korea earlier this month. But the 27-year-old has been cast into the shade in the UAE by two less-heralded players.
Al Shabab wide man Hattan Bahebri has a goal and an assist, while incessant Al Faisaly midfielder Abdulaziz Al Bishi has a pair of assists.
In a national team normally dominated by Al Ahli Jeddah and Hilal, it’s been refreshing to see the depth of talent in the Saudi Professional League being put on show.
The time has come for Japan to deliver on their talent, and reputation, at this Asian Cup.
A much-changed squad from that one that frightened Belgium in the World Cup’s round of 16 made the journey.
Hajime Moriyasu replaced Akira Nishino in the hot seat. Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe are among those to either retire or be snubbed, while centre-back Gen Shoji is currently acclimatising at new employers Toulouse rather than featuring in continental competition.
Prolific Groningen winger Ritsu Doan is at the forefront of their new generation.
The early signs, however, have not been that promising.
Newcastle United’s Yoshinori Muto is likely to get the nod up top, because of a sparsity of on-song other options.
The usual Samurai Blue passing carousel has also not been present. They rank only fifth for most passes on 1,556, 380 less than leaders South Korea and 354 fewer than second-placed Saudi.
Limp displays were still good enough to defeat Turkmenistan, Oman and Uzbekistan.
They’ll, surely, need to discover another gear, or face their worst performance since 1988. The question is, do they possess them?
SAUDI’S DEFENSIVE REINFORCEMENTS
After the defensive errors registered in defeat to Qatar, two welcome sights greeted Juan Antonio Pizzi on the training pitch in Sharjah.
Al Nassr centre-back Omar Hawsawi and flying Al Hilal full-back Yasser Al Shahrani have been declared fit after spells out injured, meaning they have an excellent chance to bolster a potentially suspect rearguard.
Hawsawi hasn’t kicked a ball in anger since December 31’s goalless tune-up against South Korea. But with fellow centre-backs Ali Al Bulaihi and Mohammed Al Fatil just in the teens for caps, his 51 appearances for the Saudis means he boasts invaluable experience.
Al Shahrani has not been seen since his late withdrawal in the opening 4-0 thrashing of the North Koreans. In tandem with ceaseless Hilal club-mate Mohammed Al Breik, their energy and enviable quality in possession means the Green Falcons can hope to dominate on the flanks.
Gaining such supremacy, however, will be no small task.
Wingers Doan and Hannover’s Genki Haraguchi have already got on the score sheet in the UAE. Hiroki Sakai is a machine at right-back and Galatasaray’s Yuto Nagatomo is now an elder statesman of the squad.
But Al Breik and Al Shahrani have the ability to counter these weapons.
RETURN: Omar Hawsawi and Yasser Al Shahrani have returned to full team training after obtaining medical statements allowing them to participate. pic.twitter.com/lgUnLwmgn2
— Saudi National Team (@SaudiNT_EN) January 19, 2019
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