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Saudi Arabia defeated Tajikistan 1-0 on Thursday to make it three wins out of three in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup.

They face the same opponent in Dushanbe on Tuesday and here are five talking points ahead of what will be a tough encounter.

The team cannot rely solely on Salem Al-Dawsari

The 2023 Asian Player of the Year won that award for a very good reason; he operates at a consistently high level for both club and country. In last week’s game in Riyadh he scored the only goal. He showed his skill, ability to run into the area, beat defenders and then finish. He makes it look simple time and time again but it is anything but.

But apart from the Al-Hilal man’s contribution, there was not much else happening in a creative sense. He has the ability to make a difference in the final third. Before his goal, he almost danced through the area to score, but the ball was cleared at the last minute. He delivers in the big moments in the big games. It can be argued that this is enough in the second round of qualification but there will come a time when even Al-Dawsari cannot do it alone.

Al-Faraj question still stalks Mancini

At this stage of World Cup qualification, there are many coaches who would love to be in Roberto Mancini’s shoes. The Italian has collected nine points from the first three games and results literally could not have been better.

Yet there are some misgivings, not least about the quality of the passing from midfield. Mohammed Kanno has plenty of qualities but does not have the composure in possession that Salman Al-Faraj has. Few in Asia do. Al-Faraj returned to action for Al-Hilal recently and has been looking very good for the most in-form team in the world.

At the age of 34, he is obviously not a player for the long-term but could do a job for the next couple of years, at least until the World Cup. Mancini famously excluded the player from the Asian Cup and does not take kindly to being asked about it — he told a journalist to change the question last week — but Al-Faraj brings something to the table.

If Mancini is not going to select him then he needs the team to show on Tuesday that they can excel without him.

A huge game for Tajikistan

The Central Asians showed in Riyadh why they made it to the last eight of the Asian Cup, and it was just the final pass and the lack of a spark in the final third that denied them a deserved point. They were full of running and fight and did not just sit back and hope to frustrate the hosts.

There will be a sold-out stadium in Dushanbe and a very focused home team. In truth, Saudi Arabia can afford to lose this game and still go through with a win against Pakistan in the next match in June.

But defeat for Tajikistan would almost certainly put them three points behind Jordan in the race for second with two games to go. It would mean that they would have to win in Amman next time to have a chance of progressing. Victory on Tuesday keeps them very much in the hunt for the next stage. Saudi Arabia are going to face a tough test.

Saudi Arabia need a solid 90-minute performance

Saudi Arabia faded in the second half of the game in Riyadh.

Mancini pointed to the lack of regular game time that some of the players had to deal with at their clubs, citing the likes of Kanno and Nasser Al-Dawsari as examples. The Italian has a point. Some of the players may lack match sharpness but this is something that he is just going to have to deal with. It is his job to manage the situation.

He also mentioned that Tajikistan had a week together to prepare for the qualifier while he had just three days with his players. This happens in Asia. The big teams tend to have better leagues with bigger clubs. Smaller nations will often do more to help their side against the established powers. This is just something that Mancini needs to accept and do his best to handle. He has a chance to show he can on Tuesday.

Early qualification is welcome for many reasons

If Saudi Arabia do win in Tajikistan then it will be four out of four and, more importantly, it will send the Green Falcons through to the next stage with two games to spare. That would give the coach and players some breathing space in June and more time to build for the next round.

There is no better way to prepare for competitive games than to play competitive games and when you already have the points you need, it is a perfect situation.

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