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Roberto Firmino set for new chance after Liverpool return and five-month ‘nightmare

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Roberto Firmino remained in Saudi Arabia after the close of the transfer window despite transfer speculation linking the Liverpool forward with a premature exit from Al-Ahli.

While Jordan Henderson might have escaped his Saudi Pro League ‘nightmare’ in January, it was a different story for Roberto Firmino.

The pair both left Liverpool to move to the Gulf State last summer, with the England international completing a controversial £12m transfer to Al-Ettifaq while the Brazilian joined Al-Ahli on a Bosman transfer. Having won every major honour at Anfield, both were marquee arrivals in their new surroundings and named club captain at their respective clubs.

Yet both would struggle in the Middle East during the first half of the season. Regularly playing in front of paltry crowds that would only fill a fraction of Anfield, Henderson made 19 appearances for Al-Ettifaq, as he failed to score but registered five assists, after reuniting with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard.

But while the Saudi side would start the season well, they won only one of their 13 league and cup games since the end of September, dropping to eighth in the Pro League table as a result. With Henderson and his family struggling to settle in the Gulf State, the former Reds captain would ultimately seek pastures new and ripped up his contract to return to Europe with Ajax last month.

The 33-year-old had at least played consistently for Al-Ettifaq, before deciding Saudi Arabia wasn’t for him, with it his own decision to seek an exit. In contrast, Al-Ahli had reportedly wanted to offload Firmino after half a season, only for such a move to fail to materialise.

Enjoying a dream start with the club, the forward actually scored a hat-trick on his debut as he captained Al-Ahil to a 3-1 victory over Al-Hazem on the opening day of the season. But making 19 appearances for the club to date, he hasn’t scored since.

Initially first-choice in attack, he’d lose his place at the end of October following a 3-1 loss to league-leaders Al-Hilal with supporters also said to have turned on the forward. Losing the captaincy in the process, Al-Ahli went on an eight-game unbeaten run after dropping the forward.

Winning five of those matches, and keeping seven clean sheets, the 32-year-old was limited to 94 minutes of action across seven substitute appearances.

Meanwhile, Saudi international Firas Al-Buraikan would lead the line at Firmino’s expense, registering six goals and three assists from those aforementioned eight games to take his total to the club to nine goals from 14 appearances. Having started the season with Al-Fateh, the 23-year-old has 13 goals from 19 matches this season, while his form has helped take Al-Ahli up to third in the table.

After losing his place in the side, Firmino had found himself linked with a move away from the Saudi club with a possible Premier League return mooted. Speculation linked the Brazilian with winter moves to Chelsea and Fulham, only for neither move to materialise, while reported interest from Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq also led to nothing.

Consequently, when the Saudi transfer window closed on January 30, he found himself still at the club. For the record, it had already been reported that he had no intention of leaving Al-Ahli despite the speculation.

Having returned to Liverpool at the turn of the year, and joined Fabinho in watching his former team-mates beat Newcastle United 4-2 on New Year’s Day, Firmino reported back to training with Al-Ahli on January 15 following the Saudi Pro League’s mid-season break.

And he’s enjoyed a respectable return in his side’s friendlies, starting all five games to date and scoring in a 4-1 victory over Abha on January 19, and in a 2-2 draw with Al-Nasr on Thursday. But whether that means the door is open to a reprieve with the club in the second half of the season remains to be seen.

While Firmino might have started all five of his side’s friendlies, six of their leading players, including Al-Buraikan and Riyad Mahrez (their joint-leading goalscorers) are currently away on Africa Cup of Nations or Asian Cup duty. Meanwhile, manager Matthias Jaissle has also tended to rotate the rest of his big-name overseas players between starting and coming on at half-time.

In contrast to the Brazilian, Allan Saint-Maximin and Gabri Veiga started two friendlies apiece, while Roger Ibanez started one. However, all four were named in the starting XI vs Al-Nasr. Ezgjan Alioski has also started two friendlies despite being unregistered for the first half of the season.

Al-Ahli currently have no further friendlies scheduled prior to their Saudi Pro League return against Al Akhdoud on February 16, by which point both Al-Buraikan and Mahrez’s international exploits will long since have finished.

It remains to be seen if Firmino’s mid-season showings signify an upturn in fortunes in the absence of his fellow forwards following a difficult first half of the season. But regardless of where the former Reds man lies in Al-Ahli’s pecking order, he will remain in Saudi Arabia until at least the end of the season.

With Al-Ahli finishing the first half of the campaign in fine form at least, the Brazilian, who will be desperate to end his lengthy goalscoring drought when the Saudi season resumes, will now look to succeed where Henderson failed. If unsuccessful, he will remain just another player to struggle after leaving Liverpool behind, while transfer speculation regarding Firmino’s future will soon rear its head once more.

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