RIYADH: Al-Ahli will become the third and last of the Saudi clubs to take to the field in the 2021 AFC Champions League when they face Esteghlal of Iran at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, and it could just be the perfect setting to get a faltering season back on track.
While Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal seem to be constantly in the spotlight for varying reasons, Al-Ahli seem to have gone somewhat under the radar despite their own ups and downs.
Not necessarily a bad thing when they see the struggles of Al-Nassr, in particular, whose frustrating season continued when they huffed and puffed in the opening match of the AFC Champions League against Al-Wehdat of Jordan but had to settle for a 0-0 draw in Group D on Wednesday.
The Riyadh giants had plenty of possession and shots but just could not find a way through a committed defense.
It was very much the kind of performance and result often seen early in tournaments when strikers are still searching for their shooting boots and the underdogs are desperate to impress.
But with Al-Sadd, the team that Xavi Hernandez led to the Qatar title undefeated earlier this month, up next, there will have to be improvements. After his first game in charge, new coach Mano Menezes has plenty to think about.
For Al-Nassr, Asia is a chance to start again after a season beset by controversies and upheavals off the field and indifferent results on it.
The same is very much true of Al-Ahli.
Perhaps Al-Ahli’s off-field situation has not been quite as newsworthy as that of their Riyadh rivals but on the pitch, the situation is worse. It has become, to say the least, a disappointing season.
Become is the operative word because, until recently, the Jeddah giants were very much in the title race. With 17 games of the season gone, Al-Ahli were in second spot and just two points behind the leaders.
Now, after just two points from the last eight games and six successive defeats — the worst run of form in the illustrious club’s history — even finishing in the top half is in doubt, an unthinkable outcome just weeks ago.
Rumors of poor team spirit have not helped, and there has been a situation with star striker Omar Al-Somah. The Syrian, one of the best foreign strikers in Saudi league history, signed a new deal in January but was soon voicing his discontent about the lack of investment in a team that finished third last season and, he felt, should have kicked on.
Goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais was honest in his assessment after the latest loss, the 3-2 home defeat inflicted by Al-Raed.
“Things are difficult at the moment. They have become out of control, and it is clear to the public that our position in the league has become embarrassing for every player, as these results are now there for all to see and part of our history.
“We all play to win. No player wants to lose. Last season we were consoling the Al-Ittihad players, as they were going through such difficult circumstances,” the international said.
Al-Ittihad flirted with relegation last season, something that has not been on Al-Ahli’s radar. The other Jeddah team have come roaring back in this campaign and are only three points off the top of the table with just five games remaining.
In fact, the team do not even have to wait until next season for a clean break. The AFC Champions League offers a quick opportunity to find some form, recover confidence, and simply start winning again.
“The Asian Champions League will be different. Our situation will change a lot and it is a new beginning for us,” Al-Owais added.
That is the thinking of the club too as, similar to Al-Nassr, a new coach has come in to take charge of the Asian campaign. Vladan Milojevic was dismissed last month, and the Serbian was replaced by Laurentiu Reghecampf. The Romanian took Al-Hilal to the final of the 2014 continental championship and two legs of domination against Western Sydney Wanderers that ended, somehow, in defeat.
The new boss has already talked of how important the tournament is and with Al-Somah returning from injury as well as the likes of Al-Owais, Abdulrahman Ghareeb, Romanian midfielder Alexandru Mitrita, and Driss Fettouhi of Morocco, there is plenty of talent and experience to call upon.
Taking on Esteghlal, Qatar’s Al-Duhail, and Al-Shorta of Iraq is a tough but not impossible group. What is vital however is a good start. If the first game ends in defeat, confidence will dip even more. But victory could change everything.
Results are poor and self-belief is low but then so are expectations. With a new coach there is a great chance to put a nightmare spell to an end and return to winning ways in the league to try and finish the season as high as possible and prepare for next year. For Al-Ahli, similar to Al-Nassr, Asia could be a welcome change.