Slaven Bilic looks to one of the results of this season’s Roshn Saudi League as a clear indicator of what his Al Fateh team can produce.
It was way back at the beginning of September, when the 2023-24 RSL was only five matchweeks old, but the Al Ahsa side signalled their intentions for the campaign ahead.
Sixth last season, Al Fateh had opened with five points from four fixtures, and were set to host an Al Ahli side boasting maximum points.
What’s more, the newly promoted Jeddah club had been one of the most active RSL outfits in an incredible summer transfer window, bringing in the likes of Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez, Franck Kessie, Allan Saint-Maximin, Edouard Mendy and Roger Ibanez.
But Al Fateh resisted Al Ahli’s star-studded crop to deliver an amazing display, bouncing back from an early Abbas Al Hassan own goal to triumph 5-1.
As far as statements go, it was pretty striking. Clearly buoyed by the result, Al Fateh went on to win five of their next six league outings, the solitary blemish a defeat at champions Al Ittihad.
“That game was a special one,” Bilic says in an interview with the Roshn Saudi League. “Especially this season, in Saudi, is a little bit 'new world order'. It's completely new.
“A new Ahli, and Ittihad and those four clubs [Al Hilal and Al Nassr], plus Shabab - they are [the] big five. Even five years ago, 10 years ago, they were better.
“But this time, on paper, the difference is bigger, with the budget, with the names that they brought. So for us, for me also, but for the guys especially, it was a really challenging moment.
“That they didn't have experience to play against a team that's got, I don’t know, five or six or seven players that last year they were watching on television, playing in Italy or Spain or wherever."
Of course, Al Fateh did score three times from the 89th minute. However, the victory, however wide a margin, was built on a strong collective ethic.
“That was a great game for us," Bilic says. "To be fair, I said it after the game, and I have no problem by saying it now: it wasn't a 5-1 game. Somebody when he read the result and see 5-1, they say, ‘Easy. Easy for Fateh’. No.”
“It was difficult, but we were complete in that game. We were really brave, we were good in defending. It was really teamwork.
“But then it's not enough to win those games. Then you need a couple of individual performances in the team that are crucial. And that day we had, on two or three occasions in crucial moments, Jacob [Rinne], a goalkeeper who saved those few chances that they had.
“And we had a few players up front, but especially Mourad [Batna], who that game was in counter-attack and was destroying their defence on a big pitch.
“Plus, you have the team in between that is giving everything and fighting and providing and helping also these two guys. That gave us that victory.”
It also gave Al Fateh’s confidence a considerable boost for the season ahead.
“That three points was not only three points,” Bilic says. “They were more than three points. Because that gave us that extra belief that we were a little bit, as a team thinking, ‘Are we good enough? Because they bought this player, they bought these players’.
“That game was a little bit of proof. Proof that, yes, we can do it, no matter what. We can do it if we are together, and if we have those special moments from special players.”
Al Fateh may have eventually gone through a sticky patch from November to mid-December – they were winless in six RSL matches – but they rebounded in Matchweek 18 with an impressive 3-1 victory at fourth-placed Al Taawoun.
Now seventh, Bilic's side resume the RSL campaign on February 17 with a tricky encounter away to Al Nassr, who sit second in the current standings.
Slaven Bilic Al Fateh head coach interview
No doubt, the former Al Ittihad manager, installed at Al Fateh in July, is vastly experienced. So he understands that in football, no matter the results, hard work will forever be the key ingredient.
“I always remind the players when we're in a good spell: use it as a motivation to even work harder,” Bilic says. “There's nothing wrong in being happy and being a little bit proud how we play.
“But you should never forget what brought us here, what we had to do from the pre-season in Austria. That we had to work really hard every day, every day - sacrifice, suffer and everything - to reach this point.
“To be fair, the team was doing well last season, so I came in a good moment. They finished sixth, which is a great achievement for Al Fateh. And I came into a good group of people that needed a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
“So you should have that balance about accepting, ‘Yeah, we are doing well’, and knowing that it can go if we drop five percent in whatever. That in football it goes like this [clicks fingers] and bye-bye. Then it's a good situation to be in.”