What drama! Saudi Arabia recovered from an early setback in their opening game at the 2023 Asian Cup to defeat Oman 2-1 in Doha on Tuesday.
After trailing for much of the Group F match, Abdulrahman Ghareeb equalized in the second half and then, in the 96th minute, Ali Al-Bulaihi headed home an unforgettable, and ultimately deserved, winner.
It was not the best performance from Saudi Arabia, but if there is any team that knows a first game does not define a tournament, it is the Green Falcons.
They defeated Argentina in the opening game at the 2022 World Cup, only to fall at the first hurdle while the South Americans went on to lift the trophy.
For a long time, defeat looked likely as Oman took an early lead. A spot kick converted by Salaah Al-Yahyaei after 14 minutes put the Reds ahead.
A defeat is never welcome in a tournament, but would have meant that Roberto Mancini’s decision to omit Salman Al-Faraj, Sultan Al-Ghannam and Nawaf Al-Aqidi from the squad would have come under more scrutiny.
The penalty was given as Hassan Tambakti was adjudged to have made contact with Muhsen Al-Ghassani in the area.
It was a soft decision, but the referee pointed to the spot after consulting the pitchside monitor. Then Al-Yahyaei sent goalkeeper Ahmed Al-Kassar the wrong way.
It stung the three-time champions into action but, as was expected, Oman were well-organized, disciplined, and made it difficult for their more illustrious opponents.
Despite that, Saudi Arabia then had chances to level the scoreline. Sami Al-Naji had a shot that was deflected just wide, Nasser Al-Dawsari’s long-range effort flew just past the post, and then Saleh Al-Shehri missed from close range.
The Green Falcons came closest just before the break after a lovely move. Saud Abdulhamid was on the right side and headed a deep cross from the left back across goal into the path of Al-Naji, whose instant shot from close range was well-saved from Ibrahim Al-Mukhaini.
In the second half, Saudi Arabia pushed further and further forward while Oman were happy to sit back, saying to their bigger rivals “come and break us down.” It was far from easy as Saudi Arabia struggled to create chances.
Then with 12 minutes left, it was 1-1 thanks to a goal of the highest quality. Ghareeb had been on the pitch just three or four minutes when he picked up possession at the edge of the area, danced past three defenders and then rolled the ball home. It really was a goal of class and beauty, and it looked like more would follow.
That is what happened after 96 minutes as Al-Bulaihi headed home from close range. The goal was immediately ruled out but, after a lengthy VAR delay, it was given.
The Oman players and coaching staff were furious, but in the end it was 2-1 to Mancini and his players.
Saudi Arabia go on to meet Kyrgyzstan on Sunday, who lost 2-0 to Thailand earlier. There is still a long way to go, but the first step has been taken.