JEDDAH: This season was supposed to be different to the last, but after just five games in the Saudi Professional League, Al-Ahli are in crisis mode.
Management at the four-time champions must have been thankful that at least Al-Nassr’s dismissal of Mano Menezes last weekend took the bulk of the attention, but now the focus is very much moving westwards towards Jeddah.
There are must-win games and then there are must-win games and Thursday’s league meeting with Al-Fayha is crucial for the club and especially the boss.
Al-Ahli have drawn seven matches in a row in all competitions, and their last win came in April against Iraq’s Al-Shorta in the AFC Champions League group stages.
With only five points this season, the club now sits 10th in the Saudi pro League table.
If the five-time champions do not return from Al Majma’ah with three points, then coach Besnik Hasi is in line to become coaching casualty number five this season. With the Jeddah Derby against league leaders Al-Ittihad looming eight days later, it is likely the bullet will be fired if there is no victory. Al-Ahli and Hasi know well that after Al-Ittihad fired their coach with just one league game played, they have won every game since.
Al-Ahli finished eighth last season, just four points above the relegation zone, in a season dominated by reports of problems in the team and salaries that came late. Whatever happened off the pitch, what happened on it — the club’s worst finish since 2008 — was not good enough for a genuine Saudi Arabian giant.
Hasi was not the biggest name coach available, but boasts a solid European CV in charge of Anderlecht, Legia Warsaw and Olympiacos. He impressed in the Saudi Professional League with Al-Raed. It was no surprise then that the management felt in June that the 49-year-old was the right man to build something more substantial.
His recruitment seemed decent. The addition of Ezgjan Alioski from Leeds United was a solid move. Star striker Omar Al-Somah, who often cut a forlorn figure last season, seemed happier. After former Barcelona star and Brazilian international Paulinho arrived, the signs were promising.
But after five games, Al-Ahli have just five points from five draws, their second-worst start to the season ever. There looks to be a distinct lack of leadership on the pitch. There has been major possession in most of those games but the team have been guilty of not taking their chances and switching off at the back. This is something that Hasi knows needs to stop against Al-Fayha who have said that they will let fans in for free in a bid to create that all-important 12th man.
To make matters worse for Al-Ahli, on paper it has been a fairly gentle start and they have yet to play one of the big boys. The pressure is well and truly on — and now Paulinho has gone. The star player departed suddenly last weekend and Al-Ahli have been trying this week to show that the 33-year-old leaving had nothing to do with any issue at the club or anything related to football at all. The player said that it was due to “emergency circumstances” and the official line is the same.
“Paulinho showed us a picture of his family house two weeks ago,” said an Al-Ahli board member. “We met with him and confirmed that he needed to return home and we offered him the chance to have leave but he insisted that he needed to stay a long time. The player was happy here and had ambition and his departure was down to family circumstances only and nothing else.”
The football family in Brazil expects that he will be playing back in South America before too long. “It's up to Paulinho whether he wants to play for Corinthians or not,” said former Corinthians president Andres Sanchez. “He knows everything about Corinthians and how much he can be paid, it is up to him.” That is no longer an issue for Hasi, who may turn to powerful Saudi international midfielder Ali Al-Asmari to play the Paulinho role.
The European coach is not the only manager under pressure.
Al-Shabab finished second last season but have been struggling so far this year under new boss Pericles Chamusca. Like Al-Ahli, Shabab have five points, though a win and a draw in the last two games has kept the Brazilian in the Riyadh hotseat so far. Defeat against Al-Hilal — the champions are not the team you want to face in such a situation — on Thursday could see Shabab drop into the relegation zone and Chamusca drop out of a job.
Al-Nassr have just fired Menezes and know that a failure to defeat Al-Batin will increase pressure on the board. Assistant Marcelo, also a Brazilian, will take temporary charge of the Riyadh club. That coaching change in Riyadh was not the first this season and will not be the last, but Besnik Hasi needs a result to avoid being the next.