Mohammad Al-Sahlawi is unlikely to forget 2015 in a hurry. The 28-year-old helped Al-Nassr capture their seventh Saudi Professional League title and played a fundamental function in Saudi Arabia surging to the top of Group A in the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Al-Sahlawi finds himself atop the scoring chart in the continental preliminaries with 13 goals, having previously found the net 21 times in the league last season - a total which saw him finish as second-leading marksman. *FIFA.com *spoke to the prolific Al-Sahlawi about his performances on the road to Russia 2018 and his propensity for last-gasp goals.
Al-Sahlawi and Co are intent on propelling the Green Falcons to the World Cup for the fifth time and challenging for the AFC Asian Cup 2019. As far as the first target is concerned, the team has got off to a strong start, as they sit in first place of a qualifying section that contains United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Malaysia and Timor-Leste.
“We started off well with four wins in a row and a draw with Palestine, and we followed that up with a high-scoring victory over Timor-Leste,” he said. “We’re on top of the group and we hope to continue in the same vein so that we can reach the final round. Qualifying for the World Cup is our dream, and it’s all in our own hands. If luck is on our side, we’ll qualify and provide the Saudi fans with a great moment of joy.”
Al-Sahlawi has been instrumental in the Saudis’ five successes so far, but he is quick to point out that this impressive tally is the result of teamwork rather than individual brilliance: “Any player would love to play in this side, and without my team-mates, I would never have been able to score so many times."
Of course, the aim of any attack-minded player is to put the ball in the net, but Al-Sahlawi, who began his career with Al-Qadisiya at the age of 18, has developed a knack for last-minute goals, as he showed in Saudi Arabia’s first match with Palestine, as well as in the games against UAE and Timor-Leste. According to the man in question, the secret to this well-timed skill lies in his physical condition.
“Fitness and concentration are both important," he explained. "I’ve managed to put in some consistent and remarkable performances, lasting the full 90 minutes. It’s my excellent physical shape that enabled me to score those crucial goals.
“The most important goal I’ve scored to date came against UAE, in the 90th minute, because they’re our main rivals in the group. It was a key match for many reasons, not least because it was a Gulf derby.
“Any player who's ever been called up to the Saudi youth teams and the Saudi senior side wants us to qualify. As far as I’m concerned, I’d love to help us do that and to score at the World Cup.”
On the shoulders of giants
The Hofuf native was just seven years old when Saudi Arabia made their World Cup debut at USA 1994, where they reached the Round of 16. And he had only just got the ball rolling on his professional career when the Saudis made their last appearance on football’s greatest stage, at Germany 2006.
“I still remember Saeed Al-Owairan’s goal against Belgium and Fahad Al-Ghesheyan’s goal against Sweden in 1994," he said. "It was a historic performance for Saudi Arabia, and they played in the next three World Cups as well, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Since then, we’ve not managed to make it, but I hope that I and my team-mates can achieve that dream.”
A number of strikers have left their mark on Saudi Arabian football history, such as Al-Owairan, Majed Abdullah, Sami Al-Jaber and Yasser Al-Qahtani. Al-Sahlawi is keen to emulate those national icons, particularly as he currently occupies the tenth spot on his country’s all-time scoring list with 22 goals, 18 of which have come this year - a figure that constitutes a record.
“I hope to follow in the footsteps of the team’s former stars and to be remembered as a great goalscorer," he remarked. "I’d like to add a few more goals so that I can move up the all-time list."
A continuation of his present goal glut will doubtless form part of Al-Sahlawi’s new year resolutions, but in the meantime he will likely focus on simply celebrating a highly successful 12 months at club and international level.