Saudi Arabia had Mohammed Al-Owais to thank for avoiding defeat in their World Cup warm-up match against Ecuador in Spain on Friday, which ended in a goalless draw.
The Al-Hilal goalkeeper was in sparkling form as he kept Herve Renard’s men from falling to a third consecutive loss at the hands of South American opposition, following defeats in June by Colombia and Venezuela.
With less than two months to go before their World Cup opener against Argentina, followed by games against Poland and Mexico, Friday’s draw will be seen as a decent result for the Green Falcons, even if they were second best for much of the game, struggled to make an impression in attack and failed to find the net for a third game in a row.
The South Americans dominated the opening period and will have been frustrated not to be ahead at the break. They should have gone ahead in the ninth minute when Pervis Estupinan sent over a perfect cross from the left. Piero Hincapie was able to get between three defenders and head the ball into the top corner of the net — or so everyone thought. Suddenly, Al-Owais came flying across the goal to make a fantastic save. It was not to be the only time the 30-year-old would be called into action.
There was still less than 15 minutes on the clock when Ecuador had their best chance of the game. Riyadh Sharahili was caught in possession at about the midway point of his own half and the ball was fed to Enner Valencia. Suddenly finding himself through on goal, the Fenerbache forward cut in from the left side but dragged his shot wide when faced with the onrushing Al-Owais.
Soon after, the striker did the same thing from a tighter angle on the other side of the area, as the men in yellow continued to find ways to get behind the Saudi defense.
On the 20-minute mark, Estupinan fired a free-kick over the bar as the pressure continued to mount. The gaps at the back were again in evidence moments later when a through ball from inside the Ecuador half almost released Valencia once more.
With Ecuador firmly in control, Saudi Arabia almost took a shock lead five minutes before the break during a rare foray into opposition territory. Hincapie fell over near the penalty area and suddenly Firas Al-Buraikan, the top scorer in the Saudi Professional League last season, was in on goal. The Al-Fateh forward pushed into the area and though he had options for passing, he rightly decided to go for goal himself. But the shot was tame; low and straight at Alexander Dominguez, who made his first real save of the game.
The first half ended on a more familiar note. Firstly Valencia’s long-range shot was turned away by Al-Owais, who then had to make another fine save from the resultant corner as Valencia again came close.
There was more energy in the opening period of the second half from the Saudis as they looked to get in the faces of their opponents and deny them time and space on the ball.
Clear chances were still hard to come by but at least Ecuador, who will line-up against Qatar in Doha on Nov. 20 in the opening match of the World Cup, were not cutting through the Saudi Arabian defense quite as often as they had in the first half.
But then Al-Owais was forced back into action as he pulled off an impressive double-stop from substitute Jose Cifuentes. The Los Angeles midfielder’s first shot, a half-volley from the edge of the area, was cleared by the goalkeeper’s boot. His volleyed follow-up bounced up off the turf and was looping toward the top of the net when Al-Owais acrobatically tipped it over the bar.
He made an even better save with 17 minutes remaining, when Michael Estrada outpaced Ali Al-Bulaihi to run onto Estupinan’s long ball. Al-Owais was quick off his line to make the save.
Saudi Arabia’s best attacking moment came with eight minutes remaining. Salem Al-Dawsari, who had been working hard without ever managing to have the influence he wanted, saw his shot blocked and the rebound fly straight into Dominguez’s arms.
Ecuador continued to push for a winner but could not find a way past Al-Owais, who did more than enough to ensure that any talk of replacement by goalkeeping rival Abdullah Al-Mayouf, left out of the squad by Renard, will fade for now.
Al-Owais has another chance to impress on Tuesday, when the Saudi preparations for the World Cup continue with a match against the USA, who were defeated 2-0 by Japan on Friday in Germany.