Riyad Mahrez interview: 'The Al Ahli fans are incredible, always behind us.'

Safe to say, Riyad Mahrez has embraced the Al Ahli supporters as much as they have him.

The Algerian international may be used to fervent football atmospheres by dint of an international career climbing towards 100 caps – he is a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner - or his nine, trophy-laden years in the English Premier League.

Take last season, for instance: Mahrez was a key component in the Manchester City treble-winning machine that competed in the Manchester derby, or at Anfield, or Emirates Stadium.

In Europe, there were the Uefa Champions League cauldrons of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. And, also, the final, against Inter Milan, at a sold-out Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul.

However, his summer switch to Al Ahli brought with it a new sensation for the 32-year-old winger. He was introduced to the returning top-flight club’s famous faithful.  

“To be fair, I was surprised - we have really, really loud fans and good fans,” Mahrez says in a sit-down interview with the Roshn Saudi League at the Al Ahli headquarters. “They are incredible, behind us. And I really love this because they have the passion and we’re going to try and do the best season as possible as we can.”

The Jeddah club’s fans are clearly loving life back in the league following last season – the only campaign Al Ahli have spent outside the kingdom’s leading league in their 86-year history.

Matches are occasions in themselves, with the team serenaded before kick-off as they line up in front of their adoring audience. Flags are waved, scarves twirled, and pyrotechnics unleashed. Put all together, it helps build what the club hopes is an unbreakable bond between the team and their support.

“Like I said, I really love the fans,” Mahrez emphasises. “And maybe sometimes when we don’t play as good or we don’t win, they’re still behind us. 

“We really need this, because the season cannot be all the time up. We’re going to have ups and downs. And the fans stay behind us.”

As much as he has been pleasantly taken aback by Al Ahli’s fans, Mahrez cannot help but be amazed by the strides made by both his current club and the RSL.

“Saudi is the biggest level in the Middle East,” he says. “I didn’t know how the level was compared to Europe, but since I arrived, [I’ve seen] it’s a good level and can only get better.

“They have a lot of talent. And to bring good people to work with and to improve the football is something amazing.”

Al Hilal v Al Ahli: Saudi Pro League

For Mahrez, the decision to leave Manchester City for a rapidly developing league with grand plans was still a tough one. He had spent almost a decade in the Premier League, a crucial cog in Leicester City’s fairy-tale title success in the 2015/16 season. That wholly unexpected triumph is regarded as one of the greatest shocks in football history.

A later move not far across England, to Manchester, proved the right one, too. During five seasons at City under Pep Guardiola’s expert tutelage, Mahrez won four Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the League Cup three times.

But it was last season that will live long in the memory. City became only the second English side to take home the treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. The latter was the club’s first continental crown.

Yet, when Al Ahli came calling, Mahrez took the jump. And, as it seems as he continues to find his balletic feet in the RSL, it is already reaping its rewards.

“Yeah, it was a difficult decision,” he says of finally uprooting from England. “Of course, it’s not easy to live nine years somewhere and play in the Premier League for nine years and then move to another country, another football. 

“So it wasn’t easy. But I feel very happy, and I’m good here.”

It certainly appears so. Conceding that he struggled at first to come to terms with the late-summer Saudi heat, Mahrez has struck six goals in his past 14 league matches.

More impressively, he sits joint-second in the assist charts, with seven. The first came on debut back in August, when Mahrez conjured a cross for former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino’s second goal in the 3-1 home victory against Al Hazem.

Now third after 16 rounds of the RSL, Al Ahli will hope they can keep pace with Al Nassr above them and leaders Al Hilal. With Mahrez, Firmino, Franck Kessie, Allan Saint-Maximin, Gabri Veiga and Co arriving this summer, a shot at a fourth Saudi league title, and a first in eight years, suddenly felt possible.

For that, Mahrez recognises it will not just be a team effort on the pitch that pushes them towards glory.

“It’s only the beginning,” he says. “Inshallah, we’re going to do big, big things. We just ask the fans to be behind us and to be patient. 

“Because we’re going to achieve big things together.”