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Tuesday / March 19.

Saudi Arabia slowly starting to reap benefits of partnership with La Liga

The Saudi Arabia national team arrived back in Riyadh yesterday after 22 days in Spain, yet for three of Juan Antonio Pizzi’s squad, their sojourn in southern Europe has lasted much longer.
Since January, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri have been living in a different kingdom to that which they are accustomed. The high-profile trio are just three of nine players who moved from the Middle East to the Mediterranean on loan as part of a deal between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, the country’s General Sports Authority and La Liga.
The deals proved a bone of contention both in Spain and Saudi Arabia. The Spanish footballers’ union claimed at the time that the agreement “prioritises the economic aspect over the sporting one,” while those in the Gulf questioned the timing, asserting that key players would struggle to break into their respective first teams and arrive back lacking match fitness.
In the end, only Al-Muwallad — a speedy winger whose goal in the 1-0 win over Japan last September secured his country’s World Cup qualification — has managed minutes with his first-team. He came off the bench for Levante with 10 minutes remaining of last week’s 3-0 win over Leganés. There is one round of the Spanish season left and Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad have returned to their clubs in a bid to be involved.
Question marks surrounding the trio’s fitness have followed them throughout the past five months. While Al-Muwallad’s involvement with Levante meant he missed much of this month’s camp in Marbella, Villarreal’s Al-Dawsari and Leganés’ Al-Shehri were given permission to leave their respective clubs early and join up with the national team. On Tuesday night against Greece, after discussions with the Saudi medical team, both completed 90 minutes for the first time this year.
“First of all, thanks to God that I have had this opportunity to train here in Spain with Leganés,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “It has been a wonderful experience to have close contact with such a high level of professionalism and train with a top club with European players. Even without playing a game, I am sure it will reflect well on my game, my technical level and I will try to improve more and more this aspect — both physical and technical.”
Al-Dawsari headed the opening goal against Greece on Tuesday, while Al-Shehri — looking notably leaner than he did six months ago — scored in last week’s friendly win over Algeria. The 27-year-old said the crucial lesson he will take back to Saudi with him is the need for dedication.
“The biggest thing for me has probably actually been the routine — the daily routine, the food, the training sessions, it is very organized. I had extra training sessions in the gym to improve my strength, so thanks to God, I think I got the maximum benefit out of it. Now I hope to go on and reach a higher level again and continue this improvement,” he said.
Pizzi, meanwhile, said he could understand concerns regarding three of his key men not playing competitive matches in the run up to the World Cup, but dismissed any doubts that the experiment was badly timed. The Argentine, who played in La Liga for seven years with Tenerife, Valencia and Barcelona, said his players’ fitness has improved since last year.
“I am very glad they have had this experience. It is unfortunate they weren’t able to play with their teams, but we cannot expect a revolution — it was a deal with La Liga. And all three actually return in better shape and in better condition than they were before,” Pizzi said, before adding with a smile, “Plus now they understand a few words of Spanish, too.”

via AN