November 22 marked one year since arguably the most significant win in the history of the Saudi Arabia national team.
Although the 2-1 victory over Argentina at the Qatar 202 World Cup had little impact on the final results of the tournament – Argentina went on to left the trophy while Saudi Arabia exited at the group stage – Saudi Arabia's seismic win shocked the world.
Winger Salem Al Dawsari took all the plaudits for his brilliantly taken goal to win it for the underdogs, but in the euphoria of it all, it was almost forgotten that it was Saleh Al Shehri’s fine movement, control and finish with his left foot that cancelled out Lionel Messi’s opener and set the tone for the comeback victory.
A year on from that famous night in Doha’s Lusail Stadium, the fates of the two players seems to diverge, with Al Dawsari recently being named Asian Player of the Year off the back of exceptional performances in the AFC Champions League and Fifa Club World Cup 2023 to add to his World Cup exploits last winter. Meanwhile, for 30-year-old Al Shehri, it looked to be yet another year on the bench at Al Hilal, playing second fiddle to famous international strikers acquired during an unprecedented summer of spending.
In the 31 Saudi Pro League matches Al Hilal played since the end of the World Cup, across the 2022/23 and 2023/24 seasons, Al Shehri started only four matches. Four was also the number of minutes he played in the league this season, all late substitute appearances. He is again likely to find himself among the substitutes as table-toppers Hilal travel to Al Hazm this weekend as the SPL season resumes.
Despite sporadic appearances, deputising for Odion Ighalo last season then Aleksandar Mitrovic this campaign, Al Shehri did get three goals and an assist for his club, demonstrating a clinical touch in front of goal.
It is these instincts that convinced successive national team managers to keep calling the forward up for international duty despite his lack of playing time at club level. Both Herve Renard and his successor Roberto Mancini were rewarded for their faith.
In the first two competitive matches of the Mancini era, Al Shehri emerged as the undisputed hero, bagging four goals in the span of a week. His brace against Pakistan early in each half set the tone for a 4-0 victory, then he added another double in Amman to help Saudi Arabia down Jordan 2-0.
The Italian coach was criticised for picking Al Shehri at the expense of Firas Al Buraikan. The Al Ahli striker has netted 23 league goals since the start of 2022/23, has played more SPL games this season and his tally of six goals in 2023/24 is bettered only by Al Dawsari among Saudi players.
But following those two 2026 World Cup qualifying victories, Mancini reiterated his faith in Al Shehri.
“We played really well and are getting ready for the AFC Asian Cup,” said the former Manchester City and Italy boss.
“I picked the players that give us the most chances of winning, including Saleh [Al Shehri]. They all did well and I will continue to do so. I want that kind of players that will help us represent the nation in the best possible way in the AFC Asian Cup.”
A late bloomer who only made his international debut at the age of 27, Al Shehri has established himself as the most prolific striker for Saudi Arabia in recent years, scoring 13 goals in 27 games. Mancini’s 3-5-2 system seems to suit the Al Hilal forward perfectly, allowing him to maximise the use of his strongest qualities: his intelligent link-up play and movement behind opposition defences as well as natural finishing ability.
With just one more window of friendly matches ahead of the Asian Cup in January, Al Shehri has very much established himself as the Green Falcons' undisputed number nine and will be eager to replicate his heroics in Qatar, the same nation where he had contributed to that famous Argentina win. Regular club football or not, Al Shehri always delivers when called upon by his country.