The beauty of football is its unpredictability, and this manifests itself perhaps in its truest form in knockout competitions when just 90 minutes can make all the difference between agony and ecstasy, no matter how big or small the club or team.
Al-Jabalain, a small club from the northwestern Saudi city of Ha’il, are the latest minnows hoping to secure a major upset on Monday when they face reigning champions Al-Hilal in the last-32 stage of the King Cup.
While Al-Hilal claimed the trophy last season – their 10th triumph in the King Cup, with only Al-Ahli (13) winning more titles – Al-Jabalain have a much more modest history. Nicknamed Al-Bunni (The Brown), after the color of their kit, Al-Jabalain have only played in three previous seasons in the Saudi Pro League, with the last of those coming 38 years ago.
However, Al-Jabailan, coached by Frenchman Denis Lavagne, have enjoyed an impressive start to the Saudi First Division season and currently sit in fifth place on the table, hoping to earn their maiden promotion to the elite league in four decades.
Dutch winger Mohamed Rayhi has been a key figure in Al-Jabalain’s recent pursuit for glory, scoring in each of his first three games for the club after moving from UAE side Al-Dhafra earlier this summer and proving to be an influential signing so far this season.
Rayhi is on his second stint in Saudi Arabia, having previously played for Al-Batin, with whom he faced Al-Hilal four times and never lost. The Al-Jabalain No. 7 is hoping it may be a lucky omen ahead of Monday’s King Cup clash.
“Al-Batin was a smaller club and I think this shows that everything is possible in football,” Rayhi told Al Arabiya English ahead of the clash against Al-Hilal.
“We have started well in the league and I think here, in Saudi Arabia, the fans always think they have a chance. We are aware that it will indeed be difficult, but as players, we must also believe that we can win.”
Rayhi had honed his skills at the football academy in PSV, one of the Netherlands’ most iconic clubs, and played alongside some individuals who have made it to the top of European football.
These names include Atletico Madrid winger Memphis Depay, ex-Liverpool and PSG midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, who now plays for Al-Ettifaq in Saudi Arabia, as well as Ajax captain Steven Bergwijn.
Against Al-Hilal, Rayhi may once again be surrounded by high-quality players such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic and, of course, Neymar, who have all arrived in Riyadh in recent months.
With Al-Hilal in the middle of a busy schedule, some players could be rested for the King Cup, though Rayhi is hoping that the stars will feature against Al-Jabalain.
“It’s a very big game for us and now it is a little bit more special because you have more big names than before,” Rayhi said. “I want these players to be on the pitch.”
He further said: “For guys like us, it is very nice to be able to test ourselves against world-class players like Neymar, but we know there are others with, too, like Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinković-Savić who have helped their team improve.”
Fellow PSV academy graduate Wijnaldum is among a smattering of Dutchmen to have joined Rayhi in Saudi Arabia and the Al-Jabalain attacker says he is in regular touch with those players, discussing what life is like playing in the Kingdom. Rayhi said he is yet to convince former teammate Depay to swap La Liga with the Saudi Pro League, though he is still hopeful.
“I had played a lot with Memphis as we were in the youth team together and one could see how much talent he had. He will surely have a successful career. It’s not only about quality; he has a good temperament, too,” Rayhi said.
“Will he come to Saudi Arabia? Why not? In the beginning, everybody said players like him wouldn’t come, but look now how many are here. If Memphis has the right offer, I’m sure he will come.”
For now, Rayhi is preparing for the prospect of facing Neymar and with Al-Hilal’s star power a major draw, he is expecting a full house at Al-Jabalain’s 12,250-capacity Prince Abdul Aziz bin Musa’ed Stadium on Monday night.
“Whenever any smaller club plays against Al-Hilal, you know that the fans will turn up in big numbers to see the stars,” Rayhi said, adding that he was sure the stadium would be full to the rafters.
“That will give us an extra bit of motivation. Fans are a big reason why I have enjoyed playing in Saudi Arabia. For the supporters, football is everything and they create a good atmosphere. Everybody follows football here in a way that I hadn’t seen in the Netherlands,” he further explained.
“Here, football is life and that gives you a good feeling to fight for your club,” Rayhi concluded.
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