JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia stayed on course for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a hard-fought 1-0 win over a spirited Oman in Jeddah on Thursday, with Firas Al-Buraikan getting the all-important goal for the under-par hosts early in the second half.

With Group B rivals Japan defeating China 2-0 and Australia breezing past Vietnam with a 4-0 win earlier in the day, the pressure was on, but victory keeps the Green Falcons four points clear of the Samurai Blue, next Tuesday’s opponents, and five above Australia with just three games left to play. Qatar is getting closer and closer.

A win against Japan at Saitama Stadium will now take Saudi Arabia to Qatar 2022.

Those earlier results may have put pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the team’s first half performance was the worst 45 minutes in the whole third round of qualification. Oman, missing several players due to COVID-19, were well organized and looking to deny the group leaders any space, so chances were always going to be at a premium early in the game. What was less expected was that the visitors would look likelier to score.

Midway through the first half, the Reds had the best opportunity of the game so far. Rabia Al-Alawi, always a busy and dangerous presence in attack, cut inside Ali Al-Bulaihi on the edge of the area and produced a low diagonal shot from the right that rolled just centimeters wide of the left hand post, with Mohammed Al-Owais in goal unable to do anything but stand, watch and hope.

In the absence of injured Salman Al-Faraj in the middle, the Saudis were not only giving the ball away far too often, but looked short of urgency and intensity. Coach Renard, who cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines and was continually signaling to his players to wake up, had seen enough by the half-hour and withdrew the anonymous and ineffectual Sami Al-Najei from the middle to bring in Hattan Bahebri.

Yet Oman continued to ask the questions. Right-back Amjad Al-Harthi’s low shot was almost turned in by Al-Alawi.

In the final five minutes of the first half, Saudi Arabia finally got home fans on their feet, though there were still no clear chances created. Al-Buraikan challenged the Omani goalkeeper for a Yasser Al-Shahrani cross and the volume rose soon after as the hosts appealed for a penalty for what they felt was a kick on Sultan Al-Ghannam. The half ended with a long-range half-volley from Abdulelah Al-Maiki and a shot from Al-Shahrani.

The one positive going into the break was that the second half could only get better, and so it seemed when Saudi Arabia took the lead three minutes after the restart. Befitting the performance, it was not the prettiest of goals, but nobody cared.

Omani goalkeeper Faiyz Al-Rashidi could only palm a low Al-Ghannam shot into the path of Al-Buraikan, and the 21-year-old was not going to miss from such close range.

That did not mean that the game opened up, as Saudi Arabia still struggled to impose any control and Oman still asked questions. Just past the midway point of the half, Al-Alawi had a header from close range fall straight into the arms of Al-Owais and soon after the same striker was turning in the area and firing just over.

Hearts were in mouths right at the end. Arshad Al-Alawi’s long-range effort was tipped over by Al-Owais and from the resultant corner, the same player somehow headed over from close range with the goal at his mercy.

That was the last action of what was, in truth, an ugly win — a fourth 1-0 victory out of seven games so far, but that will not bother anyone but the few Omanis in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia have taken another huge step towards a successive World Cup appearance and, with that vital cushion of four points still in place, the Green Falcons’ focus turns to Japan and a huge game on Tuesday.

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