JEDDAH: Just four games ago, Al-Ahli were in the middle of the race for the 2020-21 Saudi Pro League title.
The Jeddah club were level on points with Al-Hilal in second and just two behind leaders Al-Shabab. It was more good news to follow the announcement in January that Omar Al-Somah, one of the best players in the history of Saudi professional football, had signed a new three-year contract amid worries that he had been set to leave for pastures new.
By the end of February, however, the club had slipped out of the top three into fourth with speculation of unhappy players, late salary payments, and possible transfer bans and points deductions uppermost in the minds of fans.
Their troubles seem to echo those of many big clubs around the world.
Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur saw their English Premier League challenges falter earlier this season after bad runs, as did Juventus in Italy’s Serie A. But there are deeper issues at stake at one of Asia’s proudest clubs.
Last week’s 3-0 loss against Al-Shabab showed a gulf in class and determination between the two teams that belied their relatively close positions in the league. The Riyadh club attacked fluidly from all parts of the pitch with imagination and drive while the visitors were second best in all aspects. It increased the disquiet around the three-time champions.
Star striker Al-Somah said after the loss that the coaches and the players were doing all they could but that the right investment had not been made to make the team, third last season but 14 points behind Al-Nassr in second, into genuine title challengers.
“There is a big difference between this Al-Ahli and the Al-Ahli I joined a number of years ago,” the Syrian player told reporters.
It had been building as, amid rumors of problems with payments, club president Abdulelah Mouminah had been criticized by the players when entering the dressing room after the previous game, a disappointing 1-1 draw with Al-Ain. That was not long after coach Vladan Milojevic was lamenting that he had not been able to strengthen the team’s defense in the winter transfer window – only seven clubs have conceded more than Al-Ahli’s 32.
As the likes of Manchester United have found in recent years, when things are not going well, past players are often ready to wade in and offer opinions which are lapped up by headline-writers. Al-Somah’s comments coupled with a relative goal drought have put him in the firing line.
Ali Al-Abdali enjoyed a decade at the club before leaving in 2008 and expressed his disappointment with the striker after the recent loss at Al-Faisaly, with the home team coming back from a goal down with seven minutes remaining to win 2-1.
“Al-Somah missed a good chance to open the scoring early in the game,” said Al-Abdali. “He then wasted a penalty and has not been at his best lately. He looks slow in his movement and has not scored for four games.”
It is true that Al-Somah has not been his usual electrifying self in front of goal this season though that may be due to the high standards he has consistently set. And it seems that when he does not score then Al-Ahli do not win.
In the past, when the team needed something special, he was there to deliver. The Syrian international joined the club in 2014 and has demonstrated amazing levels of consistency and quality. The 31-year-old was the top scorer in the league for three seasons from 2014 to 2017 and is the top foreign goal-scorer in the league’s history, with only Saudi legends Nasser Al-Shamrani and Majed Abdullah netting more in total. His goals played a major part in the club becoming champions in 2016, a first title in 32 years.
Al-Somah’s nine goals this campaign has him in the top 10 list of goal-scorers, but he has not quite matched his prolific high standards. Another ex-player said that the decision to renew the striker’s contract was not the right one, he has been distracted by off-the-field issues, and his comments have helped to create a negative atmosphere.
There is more, however, with reports that Djaniny Tavares, who left Jeddah for Galatasaray last October, is still owed money. If correct, then Al-Ahli face a potential deduction of points and even a transfer ban. It has also been suggested that Mouminah is on his way out.
It all leads to instability and disquiet. As always in football, victories can put everything in a better light, and all is not quite lost. The 2021 AFC Champions League kicks off next month and this presents the club’s best chance of a major trophy this year.
Before then though, there is the small matter of finishing in the top three at home to ensure qualification for next year’s continental tournament.
Saturday’s trip to second-from-bottom Damac offers an excellent opportunity to get back to winning ways but a failure to take it could turn a drama for one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest clubs into a crisis.