Dubai: Former three champions Saudi Arabia dropped in adequate hints as contenders with a handy 4-0 thrashing of ten-man DPR Korea in their Group E opener of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s Rashid Stadium, late on Tuesday.
Asian champions in 1984, 1988 and in 1996 when the tournament was last hosted by the UAE, Saudi Arabia played a patient, waiting game to dazzle their opponents with two well-crafted goals on either side of half-time to pick up full points and go to the top of their group that also includes Lebanon and 2022 Fifa World Cup hosts Qatar.
As expected, it was Saudi Arabia maintaining a tight hold of the match with much of the action concentrated in their opponents’ half. They used the flanks, resorted to bouts of quick passing and created the chances only to find a goal alluding them.
But they didn’t have to wait for long when Hatan Bahbri displayed sheer brilliance in the 28th minute with a quick feint that caught the entire Korean defence on the wrong foot and the Al Shabab midfielder found the far corner of the goal for the opener.
DPR Korea came up with a rare counter in the 35th minute when a Ri Il Jin cross found Han Kwang Song unchallenged in the middle. But the striker who plays with Serie A side Cagliari Calcio headed over Mohammad Al Owais’ goal.
Saudi Arabia celebrated this escape by doubling their lead when Mohammad Al Fatil cleverly lent a back heel to a free kick taken by his Al Ahli teammate Hussain Al Moqahwi. The Arab nation could have made it 3-0, but for North Korean goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk who denied Fahad Al Muwallad from close range in the 43rd minute.
A minute later, the North Koreans were reduced to ten when Australian referee Peter Green flashed Han with a second yellow and the Serie A player was off for an early shower as they broke off for the breather.
In the second half, the game opened up considerably with the Saudis content safe-guarding their lead and the Koreans started enjoying a few happy moments upfront towards their opponents’ goal. Bahbri nearly got his second on the hour but the 26-year-old hit into the side netting from an acute angle.
A third Saudi goal started looking more and more certain as they continued pressing. Yasser Al Shahrani nearly squeezed one in at the far post in the 62nd and then a couple of minutes later Al Muwallad broke the off-side trap and ran in to a dainty chip from his captain Salem Al Dossary and curled the ball away from the upright.
DPR Korea slowly started getting themselves involved in moves upfront and they nearly pulled one back in the 68th minute when Saudi goalkeeper Al Owais stretched to the full to keep away a fine Ri Yong Jik volley.
Saudi Arabia finally put the issue beyond doubt when captain Al Dossary accepted a ball from just outside the area, cut back past a defender and placed a left-footer to the far corner of the goal. The hard-working Al Muwallad finally got his name on the scoresheet three minutes from full-time when he cashed in on a defensive error to slam home and make it 4-0.
Last time out in 2015, the Green Falcons had finished third in the group following one win and two losses against China and Uzbekistan. Barring their impressive 2-1 victory over a Mohammad Salah-led Egypt at last year’s Fifa World Cup in Russia, Saudi Arabia has struggled paving the way for Juan Antonio Pizzi to take over a mostly revamped squad.
Saudi Arabia x DPR Korea 4-0