Man City, Fluminense ready for FIFA Club World Cup 2023 final in Jeddah

Al-Ahli’s Firas Al-Buraikan shows Saudi striking prowess ranks with foreign superstars

Al-Ahli made a splash in the summer transfer window as they set about reestablishing their place at the top of the Roshn Saudi League.

After a year spent in the First Division, following a shock relegation in the 2021/2022 season, the 2015/2016 league champions won promotion straight back to the RSL and were one of four clubs to receive substantial financial backing from the Public Investment Fund.

In came a plethora of established European stars, headlined by Riyad Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maximin, Edouard Mendy and Roberto Firmino. They were signings that made headlines around the world as the summer of spending began to revolutionize the RSL.

There was one signing, however, that made significantly fewer headlines, but is shaping up as one of their most important as they fight to keep in touch with Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr ahead of them.

Saudi Arabian national team striker Firas Al-Buraikan started the season with Al-Fateh, where he had played since the 2021/2022 season.

He originally joined the Al-Ahsa club after struggling for game time at Al-Nassr and quickly established himself as the leading Saudi striker in the country, with hauls of 11 and 17 goals in his two seasons with the club.

Before his switch to Al-Ahli in September, he had already scored four goals in five games, including a brace against Al-Ahli in a shock 5-1 win, after which Matthias Jaissle pounced on the 23-year-old.

Having established himself at Al-Fateh, where he was a regular starter, the move to Al-Ahli was not without risk, especially with such established names ahead of him in the pecking order. Breaking into an attack featuring the likes of Firmino, Saint-Maximin and Mahrez looked like a tough nut to crack.

With the AFC Asian Cup and another FIFA World Cup qualifying cycle on the horizon, it was a brave move and one that, three months on, has paid off handsomely for both club and player.

After 10 games for the Jeddah-based outfit, Al-Buraikan has already registered six goals, including four in his last three games, suggesting he is now feeling right at home in Jaissle’s side. He is now just shy of Mahrez as the club’s leading scorer this season.

Perhaps more importantly, Jaissle has faith in Al-Buraikan, known for his laconic air-guitar celebration, to lead the attack — to the point that Firmino is now very much on the outs at Al-Ahli after failing to add to his goal tally after a hat trick on the opening day of the season.

The former Liverpool star, a former teammate of Jaissle at Hoffenheim in Germany, has struggled to make an impact in Jeddah and is rumored to be headed out on loan in January, with a move to Steven Gerrard’s Ettifaq very much on the cards.

“I obviously know Bobby extremely well, I’ve been a massive fan,” Gerrard told journalist Ben Jacobs recently.

“I’ve followed him for years. At the moment he’s Al-Ahli’s player so it’s very difficult for me to comment on that situation. But I’ve loved Bobby Firmino since the first day I watched him and I’m a huge fan.”

Al-Buraikan’s run of form could hardly be better timed with the Asian Cup only a matter of weeks away; a tournament for which the Green Falcons are one of the favorites for silverware.

A permanent fixture in the squad under previous coach Herve Renard, Al-Buraikan was a shock exclusion from Roberto Mancini’s squad for the recent FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Pakistan and Jordan, with the veteran Italian manager preferring Al-Hilal’s Saleh Al-Shehri as the focal point of the attack.

The 30-year-old grasped the opportunity with both hands, scoring a brace in both matches to vindicate Mancini’s decision — one that had received plenty of criticism within Saudi Arabia when the squad was first announced.

But Al-Buraikan’s recent run of form, with four goals in his last three matches, cannot have done his chances of earning a recall any harm.

While Al-Shehri shines for the Green Falcons, at club level he still struggles for significant game time in an attack featuring Aleksandar Mitrovic, Salem Al-Dawsari, Malcom and Michael. His four matches and one goal are a stark contrast to the 15 games and 10 goals of Al-Buraikan.

With just one league match remaining before Mancini names his 26-man squad for the Asian Cup — away at bottom-placed Al-Hazem this Friday — Al-Buraikan will be desperate to continue his run of form to force his way into the team.

While that remains up in the air, what is not in doubt is the importance of Al-Buraikan to Al-Ahli in the second half of the season. If they are to maintain third on the table, or even push for a top-two finish, his goals will be of vital importance.

The young striker took a risk leaving Al-Fateh for Al-Ahli, but with every strum of his air guitar he makes the move one of the shrewdest of the season.

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