(Reuters) - Factbox on the Saudi Arabia national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 67 (till June 7)
Saudi Arabia are appearing at their first World Cup finals since 2006, when they exited at the end of the group phase of the competition for the third tournament in a row.
The country’s high point remains their debut qualification for the World Cup, when they reached the round of 16 in the United States in 1994 after a memorable 1-0 win over Belgium, courtesy of Saeed Al Owairan’s slaloming wonder goal.
Juan Antonio Pizzi: Argentina-born former Spain international midfielder Pizzi took over as Saudi Arabia head coach in late November 2017 after Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, who qualified the country for the finals, did not have his contract renewed.
Van Marwijk was initially replaced by Edgardo Bauza but he was fired after just three friendlies to be replaced by Pizzi, who led Chile to the Copa America Centario and the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup.
Yahya Al Shehri: Diminutive in stature but an important player for Saudi Arabia over the last five years, Al Shehri’s trickery and eye for a pass make him one of Saudi Arabia’s more potent weapons. Al Shehri has spent several months on loan with La Liga side Leganes in the lead-up to the World Cup from his parent club Al Nassr.
Taisir Al Jassim: Veteran playmaker Al Jassim has been one of Saudi Arabia’s most gifted passers over the last decade and qualification for the World Cup is just reward for a fine player who has represented his country more than 120 times while also leading club side Al Ahli to the Saudi title in 2016.
Fahad Al Muwallad: A pacy winger who scored the goal against Japan that ensured Saudi Arabia qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time since 2006, Al Muwallad’s direct running and eye for goal will be important for his country if they are to harbor ambitions of moving beyond the group stage.
Saudi Arabia’s results since securing qualification for the finals have been disappointing, with the country knocked out of the keenly contested Gulf Cup at the end of the group phase in December.
They have won only one of their four warm-up games ahead of Russia. While games against Moldova and Iraq were low key, second-string affairs, a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Belgium in late March suggests much work still needs to be done.
How they qualified:
Victory over already-qualified Japan in their final qualifying match in Jeddah sealed progress to the World Cup finals for Saudi Arabia, who finished ahead of Australia on goal difference after a demanding campaign.
The coaching changes since qualification was confirmed mean Saudi Arabia’s preparations have been disjointed while a decision to send a number of key players to Spanish clubs in a bid to give them more experience has backfired.
The opening game against Russia will be vital for Pizzi and his team as they seek to set a positive tone for the rest of their campaign, while the meeting with Arab rivals Egypt will be among the most keenly followed matches in the Middle East.
But, with the team falling short of the standards achieved under Van Marwijk, a first-round exit is most likely.
Compiled by Michael Church, editing by Nick Mulvenney