LONDON: A former teammate of Al-Hilal’s new star signing Bafetimbi Gomis said he is not surprised the former French international has moved to the Middle East and that the Saudi Pro League title favorites have signed a No. 9 with real pedigree.
Leon Britton, the Swansea City legend, spent two seasons playing with Gomis in the Premier League and got to know the striker’s game inside out. He said it did not come as a shock when it was announced the 33-year-old was moving to the Kingdom.
“It’s funny really, as he very nearly left Swansea for Dubai or Qatar — somewhere like that,” Britton told Arab News.
“He was very close to going there and we all thought it was done. We’d said our goodbyes but it fell through. So it doesn’t surprise me he has gone to the Middle East now as it was on the cards three or four years ago.”
Gomis signed for Al-Hilal last month in a deal that saw the Riyadh giants pay Galatasaray a reported €14 million ($16.2 million), making the 33-year-old the league’s second costliest ever player. He made his debut against Al-Feiha, playing just over an hour of the 1-0 win and he is expected to lead the line again when they travel to Al-Raed on Saturday.
Al-Hilal coach Jorge Jesus will hope the striker will quickly capture the form that earned the player 12 international caps and 16 goals in 64 games for Swansea.
“It’s difficult to assess his time at Swansea, really,” said Britton.
“It was a success and it wasn’t, I suppose. He was fighting against Wilfried Bony for that starting place in the team as we weren’t playing two up front. It was either Bony or Baf. When he did play, he proved his quality.”
Only 28 of his 64 league appearances for Swansea did not come from the bench, but he still managed to score 13 league goals, despite a lean start that saw him open up with just one in his first 11 matches.
“A lot of top players find it difficult coming to the Premier League and getting used to the pace and intensity of the game,” said Britton.
“I remember being quite surprised when we signed him, because he’d come from Lyon where he’d been scoring in the Champions League, so it was a big coup for the club. He definitely took a while to adjust to the English game, but you could always see his quality in training.”
Gomis enjoyed his time in the Premier League for Swansea City, seen here terrorizing Chelsea's John Terry.
Gomis eventually got up to speed, scoring a winner against Manchester United and finishing the season with five in his last six games to end his first season as the club’s top-scorer, inspiring the team to a record eighth-place finish.
He then got four in four at the start of the following season, including the winner again against United, but things then tailed off and he only managed three for the rest of the campaign and was loaned to Marseille in the summer of 2016.
“His opportunities were limited and we didn’t quite give him the service he needed,” said Britton.
“But he’s very good in and around the box and a very good finisher.”
Al-Hilal played him as a lone striker in their opening league game and that is where Britton feels he is best suited, as an out-and-out No. 9.
“He’s always playing on the last shoulder and looking to get in behind,” said Britton. “He’s not lightening quick but he’s got a bit of pace. He gets caught offside a few times as he’s always on the shoulder rather coming to feet.
“He’ll always look to stretch the defense and his best work is in the penalty box rather than coming short and linking. He’s strong in the air and his hold-up play is good. He’s a powerful boy.”
Britton said he was sad when Gomis was loaned from Swansea to Marseille in 2016 and then eventually sold to Galatasaray, as the Swans fans did not quite see the best of him.
“I know he was growing a bit frustrated as he wasn’t getting the minutes he would like,” Britton said.
“Someone of his quality and the type of lad he is, he wants to be playing all the time. It’s understandable he wanted to get out and play, but we were disappointed to lose a good player.”
Gomis spent 14 years playing in Europe but the Middle East is now his arena and he now shares a dressing room with attacking talent Carlos Eduardo, Omar Khribin and Omar Abdulrahman.
“Baf is a lovely guy,” said Britton.
Leon Britton is a big fan of Gomis and backs him to do well for Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pro League.
“In fairness, he didn’t speak much English, but he made a massive effort to learn the language as quickly as possible. He is a really good guy, very pleasant, very happy and was never a problem, even when he wasn’t playing he didn’t cause any issues. When I retired (in May) he put something on Twitter so that showed his character.”
Al-Hilal fans hope it will not be long before they see Gomis’ trademark panther goal celebration, a move that sees him crawl demonically toward the fans like a big cat.
“He got a bit of stick from our lads when we first saw it,” said Britton. “But he took it in good jest and I think you know you are going to cop a fair bit of banter from the lads when you do something like that. It’s certainly unique.”