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Saudi Arabia defeated Kyrgyzstan 2-0 on Sunday to advance to the knockout stage of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. Here are five things we learned from the game

On paper, perfect so far

Two games, six points and a place in the last 16, it could not have gone any better for Saudi Arabia in terms of results. The target was always to get to the next stage as quickly and smoothly as possible and that has been achieved. Coach Roberto Mancini can utilize his squad, rest some players and give others playing time in the final group game against Thailand and it is his job to get the team firing at full capacity when the knockout action starts.

He will not be judged at the group stage — where it is a results business — as results have been perfect. There are bigger challenges ahead and this is where the man who masterminded Italy’s European success in 2021 can earn his money. The former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss surely knows that the performances have not been great so far and he looked frustrated on the sidelines on Sunday but the platform for this tournament has been built and there is a real chance of winning three from three at the group stage.

Lack of intensity

After the game, Mancini said that the performance against 11 men was better than it was against ten and then nine. There was not, however, much time to make that comparison as the Central Asians saw their first red card after just eight minutes and the second soon after the break.

That is not Mancini’s fault and such developments do change the flow of a game but there was a distinct lack of attacking intensity from the Green Falcons. It is not always easy to play against a team that is focused only on defence and produced some physical challenges but there was not enough energy or urgency.

This should have been a time to use the advantage to create space and then opportunities for the attackers to get into the scoring habit. Instead, there were few chances created and not enough work done to find space. Compared to a team like Iraq, who never stopped running and working against Japan, Saudi Arabia need to bring more intensity to their game.

Kanno steps forward

In an attacking sense, this was one of the best performances from Mohamed Kanno for some time and in a game against an opponent struggling with red cards, the Al-Hilal midfielder could focus more on trying to get forward than usual.

His goal was superbly taken, getting himself in the right position at the far post to volley home with precision. He was a constant threat and came within inches of a second. The 29 year-old is now a senior player and needs to produce these sort of performances.

It helps other, less experienced players like Abdulrahman Ghareeb, who has looked Saudi Arabia’s liveliest attacking threat so far when he has played, and Faisal Al-Ghamdi who has also impressed and got a goal. Mancini has shown that he is prepared to select younger talent and this has, for the most part, paid dividends.

Al-Dawsari waiting to fire

Salem Al-Dawsari has been the team’s attacking talisman for some time but he was not at his best in this game. The Asian Player of the Year could not get going and lost possession time and time again. His movement and passing were also not at their usual levels.

It was not a surprise that he was taken off just after the hour. The game was virtually won — better to keep him as fresh as possible for the challenges ahead. It was noticeable, however, that as he walked off the pitch towards the bench, Al-Dawsari did not seem too happy — whether that was down to his own performance or a reaction to being substituted, only he knows. Everyone is aware that if Saudi Arabia are going to be successful in Qatar, they need their star firing.

Mancini right about favorites but…

After the game finished, Mancini was quick to point out to reporters that Saudi Arabia are not among the favorites at the tournament. He listed South Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia as those expected to lift the trophy. Few would disagree but then South Korea and Japan, the top two in Asia according to most, have not exactly been impressive so far. South Korea needed a last-minute own goal to get a point against Jordan. Japan lost to Iraq. Both of these teams would love to have Saudi Arabia’s record in the tournament while Iran only beat Hong Kong 1-0.

But these teams know that these are still early days in the competition. In history, few teams manage to impress right from the beginning and win without hiccups.

Once the knockout stage starts, there are going to be those that step it up a level but at the moment, it is looking very open indeed.

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