Juan Antonio Pizzi goes on the attack with rebooted Saudi Arabia team

Coach has worked at the highest level and friendly results have given Saudis hope before World Cup opener against Russia

Red Square was closed off to the public on Tuesday as celebrations for Russia Day took place but a group of Saudi Arabian fans were happy to watch from afar. On Thursday, however, they will be at the very centre of the main event, taking on the hosts in Moscow in the opening match of the World Cup and while the team may not be as openly confident as those singing supporters in predicting some precipitation on the home parade, Saudi Arabia are feeling positive.

Much of that is down to Juan Antonio Pizzi. The man who led Chile to the 2016 Copa América title but not to the World Cup has been busy since taking the job last November when he succeeded Edgardo Bauza only two months after the Argentinian had replaced Bert van Marwijk. In the seven months since, there have been three European training camps, a lot of friendlies and plenty of time spent with his players in an intensive buildup not unlike 1994 when Saudi Arabia reached the last 16 at their first World Cup and very different to the chaotic preparations for the disastrous 2002 tournament.

Even a Saudi media almost as fickle and fierce as a federation that has made around 40 coaching changes since 1994 is satisfied Pizzi has done as much as could be expected. The results are about to be seen but the signs are promising. One is the improved confidence in the team as displayed by the full-back Mansour al-Harbi coolly nutmegging Thomas Müller in a friendly last Friday in Germany but more pleasing for the coach was the sight of Yayha al-Shehri tearing up the pitch to score against Italy at the end of last month.

The goal was a testament to the changes he has tried to introduce. Salem al-Dawsari won possession on the halfway line and instantly sent his team-mate through on goal to give the Saudis a consolation in a 2-1 defeat. “I like to press high up the park and put the opponents under pressure,” Pizzi told Arab News this week. “Take the ball to the offensive line and get into a situation where we can score. Sometimes that happens and other times it is not very effective, but that’s the general objective.”

There were concerns Dawsari, Shehri and Fahad al-Muwallad, the team’s creative stars, would suffer from being sent on loan to La Liga clubs in January in order to gain the international experience all members of the squad lacked. They should get more minutes on the pitch in Moscow on Thursday than they managed in their spells in Spain but fears of rustiness look to be unfounded.

If the Saudis are to progress then they are crucial – the team lack a decent striker – as are the full-backs who get forward in order to aid the quick transition the coach wants and that Saudi officials are increasingly impressed by – as are others. “They are fast in attack and have some good players,” said the Italy manager, Roberto Mancini, after their May meeting. “They can cause problems.”

Fitness levels have improved markedly. So has mental strength. The games against Italy and Germany started badly but the respective second halves showed that this Saudi team has the mental capability to come back from early setbacks and while the games were both 2-1 defeats, they could easily have been drawn at the end.

Russia should not be placing hopes on Ramadan either. While Saudi Arabia are familiar with the demands of international travel and games during the holy month, which sees fasting during daylight hours and ends shortly after full-time on Thursday, there was still debate on how to handle the situation.

“We will respect completely whatever the players decide,” Pizzi said last month. “We have to be respectful. We as a technical staff will explain to them what they will face at the World Cup in terms of the level of competition, so they will have all the information available to them and can make their own decision in a complete way.”

The Saudi Arabia Football Federation president Adel Ezzat told players they had permission to do as they saw fit, with most of the squad delaying their fasting until their tournament ends. The few who have been fasting have not done so in the lead-up to warm-up games and are not expected to do so before the Russia match.

Ramadan may not have come at the perfect time and there is a feeling Pizzi did not either. A few more months with the Argentina-born Spain international then this Saudi team would be a very different beast. As it is, Russia should watch out as the pressure is all theirs. The Green Falcons have little to lose and are feeling increasingly confident.

“They know what to expect in Russia and know what we expect of them, so we are ready to perform to our best abilities,” said Pizzi. “We are looking forward to the World Cup without fear.”