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Saudi Arabia spoils Kuwait’s comeback to int’l competitions, win Gulf Cup opener

KUWAIT: Kuwait’s national team player Bader al-Mutawaa (L) vies for the ball against Saudi’s national team player Salem Saeed during the 2017 Gulf Cup of Nations football match between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Stadium in Kuwait City today. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: It took 60 minutes before Kuwait scored its first goal in international competitions in nearly two years. But its first win after its FIFA ban was lifted will have to wait for another day. Saudi Arabia scored two goals in its opening match of the 23rd Gulf Cup against the host country Kuwait, who pressed late in the second half but failed to score an equalizer in front of a capacity crowd of 63,000 at Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium. Saudi Arabia took advantage of Kuwait’s shaky performance at the start of the match, setting the pace early and putting pressure against Kuwait’s defense, which managed to thwart multiple Saudi attacks. Eventually, Kuwait was able to shake off the rust from nearly two years of inactivity with three scoring opportunities in 10 minutes, which all missed the mark.

The first goal of the match came in the 13th minute when Salman Al-Moasher put Saudi Arabia ahead with a goal assisted by Ahmad Al-Fareedi. Kuwait tried to score an equalizer after that, but all their scoring opportunities were unsuccessful. The final 15 minutes of the first half saw Saudi Arabia regain control of the match, keeping pressure on the Kuwaiti defense, while their own defense took care of Kuwait’s counterattacks. Kuwait had a great scoring opportunity in the 36th minute when Faisal Al-Harbi sent a cross to an attacker, who hit the post.

Kuwait started the second half in attack mode, shooting twice and missing the target. But the Saudis took advantage of a counterattack to score the second goal five minutes into the half with a shot by substitute Mukhtar Fallatah that ended in the back of Humaid Al-Qallaf’s net. Moasher, who scored Saudi Arabia’s first goal, assisted the second. Down by two, Kuwait began to press urgently against the Saudi defense until a scoring opportunity came in the 58th minute. Substitute Abdullah Al-Braiki received Badr Al-Mutawaa’s pass and fired a shot that beat Assaf Al-Qarni, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.

Kuwait piled the pressure looking for an equalizer, but the Saudi players kept their composure and fended off multiple attacks. The Kuwaitis players eventually started showing signs of fatigue as time winded down. Saudi Arabia controlled the pace in the last five minutes of the match, and except for a dangerous shot that narrowly missed the Saudi net in the 90th minute, Kuwait had no real chances to score. Saudi Arabia managed to maintain their lead until the final whistle, which came after four minutes of extra time. Saudi defender Omar Ibrahim Othman was named Man of the Match. Following their 2-1 loss in the tournament’s opener, Kuwait is now under pressure to win its next two matches against Oman on Monday and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia –  participating in the tournament with its second team instead of its first which qualified recently for the 2018 World Cup – look comfortable heading into their last two matches in Group A competitions. The opening match took place in front of a jam-packed crowd as fans filled up the stadium long before the game started. There were reports that the gates were closed more than an hour before kick-off. The match was preceded by a spectacular opening ceremony that featured a fireworks show and performances of patriotic songs by prominent Kuwaiti singers. His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah led top state officials in attendance. This was Kuwait’s first official match since FIFA lifted its ban on the state on December 6, 2017 – nearly two years after it was imposed in January 2016. The remarkable attendance numbers reflected Kuwaitis’ eagerness to see their national team back in action.

By Ahmad Jabr

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