ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia defeated Iceland 1-0 on Sunday in the latest World Cup warm-up for Herve Renard’s men with Saud Abdulhamid scoring the only goal of the game after 25 minutes. Here are five things we learned from the action in Abu Dhabi.

The captain’s fitness is worrying

Salman Al-Faraj is not only the captain and leader of the team but a calming and composed presence in midfield. He makes the team tick. Coach Renard last week compared him to Thiago Motta, the former Barcelona, Inter and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder who started his career playing for Brazil and then became an Italian international. It was quite the compliment but the problem is that Al-Faraj has been struggling for fitness all season. He has only played 179 minutes of league football this season for Al-Hilal and it has been a real stop start campaign.

He has missed the majority of the preparation games since qualification for the World Cup and then didn’t even last the first half against Iceland as he collected a shoulder injury after falling awkwardly. It doesn’t seem that this particular knock is especially serious but there is no doubt that the 33 year-old has been struggling and Renard will know that he may need a Plan B.

Widespread experimentation is over

It was not a full strength Iceland team but there was still some talent there and we will get a  good idea of how strong they are when they face South Korea at the end of the week. This, however,  was a solid performance from Saudi Arabia and it is clear that after the many changes and substitutions from the previous friendly games, this is looking more like the full-strength team that will take the field in Qatar as most of the big names were present..

The midfield looked similar to the one that functioned so well in qualification with Abdulelah Al-Malki and Mohamed Kanoo in action along with Salem Al-Dawsari who is now getting back some of his sharpness after the appendix operation. There are still questions regarding the striker however. Saleh Al-Shehri would normally be assured of that spot but is struggling with injury. In his absence Firas Al-Buraikan worked hard but never really had a sniff of goal.

Renard will not be looking to make too many changes ahead of the Argentina clash so time is running out for anyone else to stake their claim.

Saud Abdulhamid is staking a claim

Yet there are always some players who make a late dash for a World Cup place due to their performances just before the tournament and Abdulhamid may be Saudi Arabia’s bolter.

The Al-Hilal right-back has been in and around the national team set up for a while without ever becoming a regular starter but he has improved in the past year or two. He played a bit part in World Cup qualification but has started to become more of a fixture and his work-rate and ability to get forward could make the difference. 

His goal was a fine one. The 23 year-old had the energy to keep going and made it unannounced to the far post to get on the end of a long, looping cross from the opposite flank.

The header was cool, the determination was impressive and the performance a fine one at both ends of the pitch and some of his tackling was tigerish. Abdulhamid may just have played his way into the line-up against Argentina and at the very least has improved his chances.

Clean sheets becoming a good habit

For the neutral, there hasn’t been much excitement and action in Saudi Arabia’s warm-up period so far and that was the case once again and there just weren’t that many chances.

It was not a surprise. There have been just six goals in the past eight games. For fans of the Falcons however, the encouraging news is that just once has the defence been breached in the last six matches. The backline is becoming increasingly well-drilled, organised and disciplined.

This is obviously how Renard sees the team getting out of the group stage in Qatar and understandably so as there is little chance that Saudi Arabia can go toe to toe with Argentina in the opening match.

The best hope of success is to keep things tight at the back and Renard has worked hard to ensure that this miserly run continues all the way into Qatar. The standard of opposition of late has not been of the highest standard, which can’t be helped as most leagues are still playing, but Saudi Arabia are looking very solid and if it stays that way for the next month then there is a chance.

Renard offers experience and authority

The Frenchman is one of the best coaches around and it is no mean feat to win the African Cup of Nations with two separate countries. He knows that now he has the luxury of weeks with his team before the World Cup, something that many of his coaching counterparts would love to have.

Whatever happens at the World Cup, it will be interesting to look back at this whole preparation period and especially this training camp.

It started with the boss changing his team wholescale after an hour, to ensure that as many players as possible got some time on the pitch.

He has also had to oversee the return to fitness of a number of injured players and now, in the latter stages, is changing formations to give his team a little more tactical flexibility. There is still a game left before the team return home. If the World Cup turns out to be successful then there will be many coaches who will study these three weeks.