Words by Tom Danicek
It was first perceived as a sign of mild desperation. After the obligatory opening Asian Cup loss to China, Saudi Arabia decided to bet on a two-headed attack against North Korea; with a certain Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, hardly a proven entity by then, coming in.
And precisely there, the deadliest striker of 2015 was born on the national stage. Having scored only four times for the national team before, the Al-Nassr star orchestrated a swift turnaround with two goals in quick succession and added his third tournament strike in the following game against Uzbekistan.
Since then, Al-Sahlawi has never looked back…
Make no mistake; however iconic his character may be in nature, Nasser Al-Shamrani wasn’t actually the hardest striker to be replaced. More mobile and generally less limited than the AFC Player of the Year 2014, Al-Sahlawi has instead brought along a role that combines the classic poacher with a more involved and all-round composed kind of striker.
Ultimately, it was only this year what proved to be an interval long enough for Al-Sahlawi to outdo Al-Shamrani’s career total of international goals.
Not only that, though; Al-Sahlawi’s 18 goals in 9 starts mean much more in a broader context. For one, he was the world’s most prolific international goal-getter, finishing ahead of the dutifully exalted Robert Lewandowski, and as for Saudi Arabia itself, the country has never nursed a player with a more productive calendar year.
Even the record goalscorer and another name associated with Al-Nassr, Majed Abdullah, happens to be three goals shy of Al-Sahlawi’s 2015 account with his tremendous exploits throughout the debut Asian Cup winning year 1984.
Moreover, let’s not forget that Al-Sahlawi has been very good even on the club scene. The textbook late bloomer finally managed to reach the 20-goal mark last term (at the age of 28), and in 2015 itself, only the phenomenon on his own – Omar Al-Somah – managed to keep up with his fine 16-goal pace.
The Syrian striker in the end prevailed in this private race, but it was Al-Sahlawi who carried his Al-Nassr team to another league title ahead of Al-Somah’s unbeaten Al-Ahli.
What makes Al-Sahlawi such a great asset for both his club and the national team is how he tends to own the opponent‘s penalty area. His instinct is immaculate and he’s literally always ready to receive the ball; morphing into a shooting machine from inside the 18-yard box week in, week out. While he barely ever scores with his left foot, Al-Sahlawi is a very capable (perhaps even underrated) header for a 180cm striker, turning out to be the league‘s (joint) leader in goals scored from the air last season (5).
Highlight of the Year: Five bullets fired into the Timor-Leste net on November 17
It was a fitting climax for Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, no doubt. If anyone was supposed to ever follow in the footsteps of the legendary Majed Abdullah and his two 5-goal performances from 1979 and 1980 respectively, it was arguably another favourite of the yellow-blue side of Riyadh. Albeit he was landed a convenient helping hand by two penalty kicks, Al-Sahlawi was once again fully on fire against the lowly Timor-Leste and contributed heavily to his side’s historic 10:0 win.
Ironically enough, and to only boost the legend further, there was a silly hashtag trending in Saudi Arabia before the kick-off, suggesting Al-Sahlawi was about to be dropped by Bert van Marwijk for whatever reason. Mind games where no mind games were needed, you reckon?