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Al-Ahli in relegation battle after coach Besnik Hasi is sacked following defeat to Al-Ettifaq

Al-Ahli lost 1-0 to Al-Ettifaq on Friday evening, a result that leaves the three-time champions in real relegation trouble and without a coach following the subsequent dismissal of Besnik Hasi. The new man, reported in South America to be Uruguayan boss Robert Siboldi, does not have much time to steer the Jeddah giants to safety. With seven games left, they are just three points above the trapdoor and others below have games in hand.

It means that Al-Ahli became the 12th out of the 16 clubs in the Saudi Professional League to make a coaching change this season (Al-Shabab, Damac, Abha and Al-Feiha are the only ones to still have the same man in place) but unlike some of the other decisions, there can be few complaints or eyebrows raised about this one.

The Albanian had been under threat for some time following disappointing results for much of the season, and his 22 percent win ratio is the lowest of any coach in Al-Ahli’s history. There were calls as early as September for the boss to be fired. That was when the club didn’t win any of their first seven games, collecting just five points. Many others in the league have been fired for much less. 

The team was too reliant on Omar Al-Somah for goals, which was a problem as the Syrian striker has struggled to match the form of past seasons and even if he hadn’t, he still needed more support in attack. Mistakes and lapses of concentration at the back also proved costly.

The decision to keep faith with Hasi seemed to have been the right one earlier in the season, however, as there were improvements as soon as 2022 dawned. On the first day of the new year, Al-Ahli came back from two goals down against high-flying Al-Shabab to take a 3-2 lead. The visitors may have won the game 4-3 but the hosts’ performance and fighting spirit, which had been an issue in the previous season, were heartening.

Then came a six-match unbeaten run that seemed to take the two-time Asian Champions League runners-up clear of trouble. The talk was of trying to finish in the top six and start refreshing the team for the following season.

No more. A number of factors have spelled the end for Hasi, who was appointed last June. Results are obviously the most important. Losing to Al-Shabab in the King’s Cup quarterfinals on Feb. 21 ended any hopes of silverware this season. That trophy would have helped turn minds away from the indifferent league campaign. Then came a 4-3 Jeddah Derby loss to Al-Ittihad, which kept their rivals on course for a first title since 2009.

The Greens impressed in coming back from 3-0 down only to lose with a late penalty, but it was a painful and deflating defeat. It meant that Friday’s game with Al-Ettifaq was a six-pointer and while Al-Ahli largely dominated against a team that had not won since November, they ended with nothing but a third straight loss and a relegation battle.

The fact that Al-Ettifaq’s first win for over three months was their first since firing their coach was not lost on Al-Ahli. In recent days, other relegation strugglers Al-Faisaly and Al-Hazm have also made changes.

And now on the same day that Al-Ettifaq picked up their first win this year, the club appointed Patrice Carteron as their new coach. The Frenchman led Zamalek to the Egyptian title last season but left Cairo earlier in the week with the club accusing him of negotiating with a Saudi team, which was thought to be Al-Ahli, while still in the job. Al-Ettifaq denied they talked to the 2015 CAF Champions League winning boss before he left Zamalek, saying they waited until the former Al-Taawoun boss was free before making their move.

It doesn’t matter too much now as it all means that unlike the title race, where it seems that nobody can stop Al-Ittihad on their relentless march to the title, the relegation battle is really heating up. Bottom club Al-Hazm are adrift but then any two of a number of teams could join them in the second tier next season. Even Al-Fateh in seventh can’t feel completely safe with a six-point cushion and teams below having a game in hand even if they will almost certainly be fine barring a late collapse. In reality, it is probably two from the next six. The recent rash of coaching changes are not decisions made for the long term, but teams know that a couple of wins will make a huge difference.

That is the situation Al-Ahli’s new boss is walking into. If it is Siboldi, then it is a gamble for the club as the former goalkeeper has never coached outside Mexico. Next Saturday’s game against Al-Tai, just a point above, is obviously a huge clash. One benefit of the closeness of the table is that a win could even take Al-Ahli back into the top half, and that is what they will be hoping is the case before a meeting with defending champions Al-Hilal in the following week. There is another relegation six-pointer as Al-Taawoun take on Al-Faisaly in a rematch of the 2021 King’s Cup final.

Al-Ettifaq and their new boss Carteron have two very tough matches coming up against Al-Nassr and Damac. 

Al-Ahli fans don’t have much experience of relegation battles and the fact that this one looks to be hugely exciting for the neutral will not provide much comfort. All they can hope for is that it ends in safety, regardless of who is in charge.


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