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Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers

RIYADH: The journey toward qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is underway, with Asia’s big guns kick-starting their campaigns over the past week.

With the tournament expanding to feature 48 teams for the first time, there is increased interest down the line as nations that have historically fallen short now fancy their chances of securing a place at football’s global showpiece.

After the first two match days of the second round of qualifying, there are five things we learned.

Palestine full of fight

Given the circumstances of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the Palestine team could have been forgiven if their minds were elsewhere during the international window.

Having only just escaped into Jordan to allow them to prepare, many left behind family and friends stuck in the firing line making for an incredibly stressful few weeks for every member of the team.

While their short-term future is unknown ahead of the Asian Cup in just a few months — returning to Palestine may not be an option — their performances against Lebanon, and especially Australia, showed how much potential exists in the side.

A goalless draw with Lebanon was a fine way to start the campaign, and although they ultimately lost 1-0 to Australia, the performance from Makroum Dabab’s side was one to be proud of. Were it not for a heroic save from Socceroos goalkeeper Mathew Ryan just before half-time, Palestine could even have snatched a draw.

While no one knows what the future holds for Palestine, on the back of these two games they can dream of reaching the third round.

Saudis start in style and build for the future

Coming into the latest round of matches with just one win from their past 11 games, there was a slight bit of pressure on Roberto Mancini’s side to show that Saudi Arabia were still the force seen 12 months ago in Qatar.

A first-up fixture against Pakistan, the lowest-ranked team in qualifying, was always likely to result in a victory, but with injury ruling out several key personnel, Mancini took the chance to blood a new generation of talent.

The wily Italian tactician clearly has an eye on building for the future, with six players 25 or under and six with five caps or fewer in the starting 11.

The clash in Jordan presented a potential banana skin, but thanks to a brace from Saleh Al-Shehri, the Green Falcons put the game to bed before half time and eased some of the concerns that had been growing before the Asian Cup in January.

Early signs promising for Bento’s UAE

It has been a lean few years for the UAE despite making back-to-back Asian Cup semi-finals in 2015 and 2019, the latter coming on home soil but ending in a humiliating defeat to Qatar.

Having gone through no fewer than five coaching changes during the last qualifying campaign, the UAE FA has put faith in Paulo Bento — who took South Korea to the Round of 16 at the World Cup — to guide the team through this campaign.

And while the sample size is small, the early signs are promising under the Portuguese manager having now won five games on the bounce, including wins over Nepal and Bahrain to start the qualifying campaign.

The UAE are one nation that should fancy their chances of snatching one of the eight automatic qualifying slots for 2026 and they could not have asked for a better start to life under their new manager. The question now is how far he can take them?

Qatar bounce back

It has been a bruising 12 months for Qatar since their World Cup humiliation, in which they crashed out having lost all three games and scoring just the solitary goal.

After the high of winning the Asian Cup in 2019, it was an embarrassing reality check and left plenty of questions as to where the team goes next after Felix Sanchez departed after five years in the job.

The answer was into the arms of Carlos Quieroz, the former Iran coach who helped guide Iran to World Cups in 2014, 2018, and 2022.

Qatar will face tougher tests ahead than a depleted Afghanistan and India, but 8-1 and 3-0 wins will do their confidence no harm at all. What will be most encouraging is that three of the goalscorers — Mostafa Meshaal, Tameem Mansour, and Yusuf Abdurisag — are under 25, while Almoez Ali, still only 27, looks to be back to his 2019 form with five goals in two matches.

This is a different Iraq side

Ever since their historic and inspiring Asian Cup success in 2007, Iraq has been a side that has promised so much but delivered so little.

With just one World Cup appearance to their name, way back in 1986, the Lions of Mesopotamia enter this qualifying campaign in a buoyant mood after the Gulf Cup success on home soil earlier this year.

Under Spaniard Jesus Casas, there is a strange sense of calm and stability surrounding Iraq, not something that has often been said about a side that it seems is only ever a moment away from chaos.

A thumping win at home against Indonesia was backed up by an important 1-0 win away to Vietnam that came courtesy of a 97th-minute goal from Mohanad Ali. That the goal came so late showed the strength and fortitude now in the side, and with the talent they have, that can take them a long way.

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