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You don’t often see a striker scoring a goal then holding aloft the shirt of a rival for a starting spot but that is what Abdullah Al-Hamdan did on April 11. The 22-year-old netted a fine opener in Al-Hilal’s 3-0 win over Al-Rayyan in the second game of Group A in the Asian Champions League. He then paid a visible tribute to Saleh Al-Shehri. It was a routine repeated by Mohammed Kanno after he scored later in the game. 

It was an emotional moment and a sad reminder of events of the previous few days.

In the first group game, Al-Shehri went off injured after scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Sharjah. The following day it was revealed that Al-Shehri will miss the rest of the Saudi Pro League season at least after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

In his absence, his club colleagues have gone from strength to strength — winning their next three matches and reaching the round of 16 — and kept the Saudi international in their thoughts. But on personal a level, and for the Saudi national team, this injury couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Al-Shehri.

It has been reported that the 28-year-old could be out of action for at least six months, putting his chances of appearing at the 2022 World Cup, which kicks off on November 21, in some doubt. Saudi Arabia have been drawn against Argentina, Poland and Mexico in Group C of the tournament. Al-Shehri was the top scorer in Asia’s World Cup qualification campaign with seven goals.

“Thank you for your messages,” Al-Shehri said in a message to the fans. “God willing, I will come back stronger and better.” He has already gone to Finland for an operation. Then he will return to Riyadh to start his rehabilitation period. 

While Al-Hilal will miss their striker, the club has an embarrassment of attacking riches with the likes of Odion Ighalo of Nigeria, Mali’s Moussa Marega and, now, Brazil’s Michael shouldering the striking burden. Indeed, Al-Shehri has only started two games in the league this season. He plays more for the national team and it is the Green Falcons who really will be hoping that the former Al-Ahli star recovers in time for the World Cup.

After all, the striker played a major role in the team reaching the global stage for a sixth time, finishing the final round of qualification as joint top scorer, with his four goals the same haul as South Korea’s Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min and Mehdi Taremi of Iran and FC Porto.

Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard will be sweating now and hoping that Al-Shehri returns back to league action and gets plenty of minutes under his belt ahead of the World Cup. The problem for the boss is that there are simply not that many local strikers playing, never mind scoring, in the Saudi Pro League. There is no Saudi Arabian name in the top 15 of the goalscoring charts.

“We have four strikers and all of them performed well in the Asian qualifiers, especially Saleh Al-Shehri and Firas Al-Buraikan, which is not a problem for me, but the most important thing is their participation with their clubs,” said the Frenchman.

It was both fitting and encouraging that Al-Hamdan immediately stepped up. He was seen as the next big hope for the national team when he burst onto the scene with Al-Shabab and joined Al-Hilal in February 2021. This season, however, the 22-year-old has yet to start a league game and his minutes for Saudi Arabia have diminished as a result.

“Since he left Al-Shabab, he has not participated in a big way with Al-Hilal, and I am sad about that,” Renard saidd. “I still believe in his capabilities, and he is an important player for the future of Saudi football.” If this injury means that Al-Hamdan gets more playing time for his club then that may just be the one silver lining to the cloud that it has gathered.

Even if Al-Hamdan plays and scores more, it is likely that more of the goalscoring burden will be shifted onto the shoulders of Al-Buraikan. The 21-year-old left Al-Nassr last year to join Al-Fateh in a search for more minutes on the pitch. It has been a successful move with the forward getting regular starts for the mid-table club and scoring six goals so far this season. 

It is the second major injury concern for Saudi Arabia as they look forward to a sixth World Cup. Abdulelah Al-Malki is also battling against time to be fit for the big event. The midfielder, who joined Al-Hilal from Al-Ittihad in January, tore his cruciate ligament while in qualification action in Japan in February. He had yet to make a debut for his new club but had impressed Renard with his mature and intelligent performances for the national team. 

The only positive for both injuries is that the World Cup is in November. Had this been a usual tournament that took place in the summer, their chances would be zero. Now both have a fighting chance to get back into action early next season and then get fighting fit for Qatar. Al-Malki and Al-Shehri have already been on a journey through qualification with their team to get to Qatar, now they have their own personal mission.

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