JEDDAH: Roberto Firmino thrilled Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and the watching world on Friday with a hat-trick, as Al-Ahli defeated Al-Hazem 3-1 in the opening game of the 2023-24 Roshn Saudi League.
Though the visitors might disagree, it was the perfect start to what seems set to be a very special campaign, thanks to the promise of great play, big names on show and plenty of big-game atmosphere.
It really felt like a new era in Saudi Arabian football thanks to the presence of world-class talents such as Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Allen Saint-Maximin, who came from top teams in England.
Much has changed since the end of last season, when Al-Ahli did not even celebrate promotion to the top flight as they felt that their time in the second tier was beneath a club with such a glorious history.
On Friday night, however, the club’s fans were exactly where they wanted to be as their team took to the pitch at the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium, and were happy to show their appreciation.
Both teams are newly promoted and last met just a few months ago, but since then Al-Ahli have not only added new players from the English Premier League, but also Franck Kessie from Barcelona. If that attacking talent was not enough, Roger Ibanez, a Brazilian center-back who joined from Roma just 48 hours earlier, was also included in the starting 11 by new coach Matthias Jaissle.
Given the talent on display, it was no surprise that the Jeddah giants took the game to the visitors from the get-go. Nor was it a surprise that there was an atmosphere in the stadium that the likes of Firmino, Mahrez and Kessie would have recognized from their times in top European leagues. Even before kick-off, one of Asia’s most storied arenas was already bouncing.
After just six minutes, Ali Majrashi, still just 23, set up Firmino — who was wearing the captain’s armband on his league debut — crossing the ball from the right for the former Liverpool star to head home.
Just four minutes later, it was the turn of Mahrez to turn provider. The Algerian attacker, who arrived from European champions Manchester City, was fed by the lively Saint-Maximin and sent over a perfect low cross from the right and once again the Brazilian Firmino — who until recently had been competing with the winger for English Premier League titles — was waiting to slot home from close range.
By the break, it seemed like the game was almost done and dusted. But five minutes after the restart Edouard Mendy, who signed from Chelsea, showed that even big names are not averse to making big mistakes. The new Al-Ahli goalkeeper cleared the ball from his area but it was a weak effort that went only as far as Vina, and the Brazilian lobbed the African shot stopper in some style.
Still, the hosts kept pushing forward, with Saint-Maximin causing problems for the Al-Hazem defense and goalkeeper. After going close himself, the former Newcastle favorite floated a ball over from the left with 20 minutes remaining and Firmino, who had a goal earlier in the half ruled out for offside, headed straight at the goalkeeper from close range. The ball came back out and the South American star made no mistake from the rebound.
In the final minutes, French star Saint-Maximin left the pitch to a standing ovation, as he had done so many times at Newcastle, after a performance that had seen him dribble, feint and delight those watching from the stands.
The headlines, however, belong elsewhere and rightly so, thanks to a debut hat-trick for Firmino and an opening win for newly promoted Al-Ahli. There was more to it than that, however — the Liverpool legend has shown the way for the other world-class talents who have recently arrived in Saudi Arabia. It really should be a season to remember.