Dubai, United Arab Emirates (AP) — This time, Saudi Arabia were on the right side of a rout in their opening game at a major tournament.
The Saudis beat North Korea 4-0 on Tuesday at the Asian Cup with two well-executed goals in each half, dominating the game even before midfielder Han Kwang-song was sent off in the 44th minute.
At the 2018 World Cup, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s team lost 5-0 to hosts Russia in the showpiece first game featuring the two lowest-ranked nations.
Expectations are higher now for the 69th-ranked Saudis — fifth best in the 24-team Asian Cup — who are favored to top a politically charged group that includes Qatar. On Wednesday, Qatar begin their campaign against Lebanon in Al Ain.
Earlier Tuesday, Iraq scored in the 90th minute to win 3-2 against Vietnam, who led twice in the first half.
Defender Ali Adnan, who plays in Italy for Atalanta, sealed the victory with a perfectly placed free kick. The high-quality finish stood out after four goals featuring a variety of ricochets, deflections, and defensive errors.
Saudi Arabia’s impressive strikes to overwhelm the North Korean defense began when Hatan Bahbri lashed in an angled shot in the 28th minute. A deft backheel by the leaping Mohammed Al-Fatil doubled the lead in the 37th.
Captain Salem Al Dawsari cleverly created space in the penalty area to shoot and score in the 70th, and Fahad Al Muwallad beat overmatched goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk in the 87th.
It was the first time Saudi Arabia won their opening Asian Cup game since winning the last of their three titles in 1996, when the tournament was also hosted by the UAE.
The Saudis next play Lebanon and won’t face Qatar until the final round of group games, on Jan. 17 in Abu Dhabi. Both could already have qualified for the knockout rounds with third-place teams in four of the six groups advancing.
Qatar has been subject to a diplomatic and logistical boycott by regional rivals including Saudi Arabia and the UAE for more than 18 months, putting the tiny emirate’s 2022 World Cup hosting under pressure.
The first Qatari in action on UAE soil at this Asian Cup was referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim, handling the Iraq-Vietnam game in Abu Dhabi.