RIYADH: Saudi Arabia came back from a goal down to defeat Oman 2-1 late on in the opening game of their AFC Asian Cup campaign on Tuesday.
Here are five things learned from the action in Doha.
Turning point for manager Mancini, players
There had been plenty of controversy leading up to the game which featured an explosive press conference from head coach Roberto Mancini that made headlines around the world.
In it, he said that Salman Al-Faraj, Sultan Al-Ghannam, and Nawaf Al-Aqidi had been left out of the squad for trying to pick and choose their games, a claim all three players denied.
No one knows the thoughts of those who made the squad but seeing their club-mates in the headlines cannot have made for the best team atmosphere.
The last-gasp victory should give the Italian manager the chance to draw a line under the whole episode and focus on winning the trophy for the first time since 1996.
If the Green Falcons do end up lifting the cup next month, Ali Al-Bulaihi’s winning goal deep in stoppage time will surely be seen as a turning point both on and off the pitch.
Worrying defeat only just averted
The last-minute jubilation should not mask the fact that it was almost a terrible start for Saudi Arabia. With 13 minutes remaining, a loss was very much on the cards and only a 96th-minute winner prevented a draw.
Had it ended in defeat, it could have been a hugely damaging one. Given the negativity that was in the air following the previous day’s press conference, it could have sent Saudi Arabia’s Asian Cup campaign spiralling into chaos.
Now there is something to build on. Every Italian knows that the 1982 World Cup-winning team did not taste victory in a single game in the group stage. It can take time for a team to find its rhythm and momentum, especially when a coach is relatively new.
Despite the tightness of the game, in some ways, it was a perfect start. A win against a tough opponent but a wake-up call that means Saudi Arabia will know they have to improve.
Substitutes made real difference
There was a general lack of creativity for much of the game, a quality that is sorely needed against a well-organized defence such as Oman’s.
Mancini remained patient however even when the opponents started to sit back more and focus on defending their lead.
The introduction of Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Feras Al-Buraikan made a difference. The former produced a moment of magic just three minutes after he entered the field of play to dance through the defense and grab the equalizer.
From that point on, there was only one team that was going to win it and that was Saudi Arabia.
Al-Buraikan caused problems with his movement and energy in the final third and, had Saudi Arabia not won, there would have been a lot of questions asking why the in-form Al-Ahli striker had not started the game.
Mancini demonstrated that when the pressure is on, he can keep his cool, and his players showed that they will keep going until the end.
Abdulhamid shows his class once more
Saud Abdulhamid impressed the watching world during the 2022 World Cup with a series of fine performances which saw him linked to a move to Italy.
Since then, he has continued building on his reputation which now has him regarded as one of the best right-backs in Asia.
On current form, it is hard to think of any better and he just exudes confidence and authority in everything he does. The Al-Hilal man made more passes than any of the Oman players, with only seven of his 60 going astray.
He deserved an assist for his cushioned header on the stroke of half-time that was very nearly converted by Sami Al-Najei, and almost headed home late in the game with the ball going just wide.
Defensively, Oman got very little joy from his side of the pitch and, all in all, it was a fine performance that bodes well for the rest of the tournament.
Early 2nd-round spot now up for grabs
The basic objective of any group stage is getting out of it, but the ideal outcome is to book a place in the Round of 16 with a game to spare.
Victory against Kyrgyzstan on Sunday will give Mancini and his men some much appreciated breathing space. It will mean that the boss can indulge in some rotation to keep his key players fresh and give others some playing time to ensure there is no rustiness for later in the competition.
The Central Asian team lost their opener 2-0 to Thailand and were very much second best in that game. There will be plenty that will encourage Mancini but then again, Kyrgyzstan will be desperate to get some points on the board or their Asian Cup adventure could end up being virtually over.
Still, Saudi Arabia’s target will be nothing less than another three points and early progress to the knockout stages.