June 13 - 19, 2018

Gulf Weekly Stan Szecowka
By Stan Szecowka


All eyes on the football world have been concentrating on whether Egypt’s ace striker Mohamed Salah will recover from injury in time for the action … but there’s another mighty Mo determined to make a goal-grabbing impact in the FIFA World Cup Finals, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al Sahlawi.

To stand any chance of success at any tournament, you need a goal scorer - and Saudi Arabia have one in prolific marksman, Al Sahlawi. The striker, who plays for Al-Nassr in his homeland, bagged an impressive 16 goals in qualifying, the same number as Poland’s Robert Lewandowski.

Saudi Arabia qualified for Russia, finishing second in their group behind Japan. They will kick-off the 2018 World Cup tomorrow when they take on tournament hosts. They’ll also play Uruguay and Egypt.

The 31-year-old, who has scored 28 times in 38 internationals, sharpened up his game ahead of this event by spending three weeks training with Manchester United. The arrangement was part of a commercial agreement between the English Premiership giants and sporting authorities in Saudi Arabia.

The Reds signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gulf nation’s General Sports Authority (GSA) which will see the club help develop the Saudi football industry, as part of its 2030 Vision - the plan to diversify the Saudi economy and to develop its public sectors.

Al Sahlawi has scored 119 goals in 226 appearances over nine seasons for his club and he has picked up the best player of the league accolade twice in a row during that time.

He was 17 when his talent started to become clear and by the end of the 2008 season he had established himself as the leading goal scorer in the top division. He moved to Al-Nassr in 2009 for SR32 million from Al-Qadsiah, at the time the largest deal in Saudi football history. In his first season with the club he scored 21 goals in 36 matches and received the Young Player of the Year Award.

His goal-scoring prowess has not gone unnoticed. The UK’s Independent newspaper marked Al Sahlawi out as Saudi Arabia’s ‘go-to man for goals’ adding: ‘Defenders, beware’. The Real Sport website described him as the team’s ‘predatory striker’ and US TV network Fox Sports labelled him the ‘star’ attraction and the main man up front for the Saudis, highlighting his campaign tally.

Peculiarly, the only negative comments have appeared in the local media. In a World Cup preview, English-language publication Arab News, reported on its website that: ‘Saudi Arabia just do not have top-quality strikers’ suggesting Al Sahlawi and his teammate Mohanad Aseri were ‘unlikely to strike fear into opposition defences’.

Al Sahlawi has not responded and, apart from posting regular images on his social media account for fans to enjoy, rarely comments and prefers to let his boots do his talking.

It will not be easy, as going into a major tournament, you want momentum, stability and unity. Saudi Arabia have none of these things.

The man responsible for guiding the Green Falcons to their first World Cup since 2006, Bert van Marwijk, achieved the unthinkable - he lasted two years at the helm, as reported earlier in GulfWeekly. But a few days after the steering the team through an arduous qualifying process, a disagreement with the Saudi FA, saw him out of a job.

His replacement, Argentinian Edgardo Bauza, was sacked after just five games in charge, including defeats by Ghana, Portugal and Bulgaria. It was nothing new. Saudi Arabia’s revolving door managerial policy has seen six managers come and go in the last five years.

Their current manager, Juan Antonio Pizzi, only took charge last November after resigning as Chile manager having failed to qualify for the World Cup. Pizzi, who used to play for Barcelona, led Chile to Copa America triumph in 2016 and has over 10 years of managerial experience.

He has a job on his hands by all cup competitions often witness one unfancied side prospering. Perhaps it’s Al Sahlawi and Saudi Arabia’s turn to sparkle?

Arriving as the tournament’s lowest ranking side, they may not be the most prolific achievers at a World Cup but history has shown they are not just heading to Russia to make up the numbers.

In the 1994 World Cup, Saudi Arabia’s first, they qualified from their group with wins against Morocco and Belgium to set them up with a last 16 tie against Sweden which they lost 3-1.

As for Salah, he was included in Egypt’s final 23-man squad, despite the team’s medical staff suggesting it will be touch and go for the player to be ready in time for their Group A game against Uruguay on Friday.

The Liverpool star was forced off early in the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid after suffering a shoulder injury following a tangle with Spanish hard-man Sergio Ramos. “We are optimists and we are waiting for him,” said Egypt coach Hector Cuper.

The clash against Saudi Arabia on June 25 may perhaps be a more likely prospect and whichever Mo – Salah or Al Sahlawi – is hottest could determine which of these two countries advance in the competition or fly home.

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