RIYADH: Ask Saleh Al-Shehri how he found working with Roberto Mancini on international duty and the answer is not what you might expect.

Al-Shehri has much for which to thank the coach of the Saudi Arabian national team. With playing time limited at Al-Hilal, current leaders of the Roshn Saudi League, the Italian raised eyebrows by selecting the striker ahead of Al-Ahli’s Firas Al-Buraikan for the recent FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifying victories over Jordan and Pakistan.

Mancini’s decision, however, not only proved astute but has reinvigorated Al-Shehri. His national “double double” — a brace in the 4-0 triumph over Pakistan followed by both goals in the 2-0 win in Jordan — preceded his first Al-Hilal league goal of the season in his team’s 9-0 thumping of Al-Hazem.

Following his own playing career, Mancini achieved title victory in Serie A with Inter Milan and took the Premier League crown with Manchester City. He then managed the Italian national team to Euro 2020 glory. But what was Al-Shehri’s impression of the highly successful manager following Mancini’s first two competitive matches in charge of Saudi Arabia?

“Honestly, a bit surprising,” replied the striker, who famously scored Saudi Arabia’s equalizer in the historic 2-1 victory over Argentina in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

“I had it in my mind that he was a tough manager, maybe someone who shouted a lot. But he’s a very calm manager. He sees things that usually no-one sees and he’s very intelligent in the way he speaks. He provides short details, but they’re the things he needs to deliver to you.”

The return to club duty has seen Al-Shehri, who turned 30 at the beginning of November, play more minutes in two games than during the rest of the season so far. His tap-in goal at Al-Hazem came in 21 minutes after coming off the bench, while he started the 2-0 AFC Champions League win in Uzbekistan against Navbahor on Tuesday and played just short of 70 minutes.

Previously, injuries and the incredible form of his Al-Hilal teammate Aleksandar Mitrovic had restricted Al-Shehri to two short substitute appearances in the Roshn Saudi League and three in the Champions League.

Talking to him, it is obvious how much confidence he has taken from finding his scoring form with the national team.

“They were a very good few days for me,” he said of the Pakistan and Jordan matches. “I scored four goals in two games and of course when you start scoring for your country it gives you a lot of confidence. I hope this continues, scoring more for my club and my country, and it helps in reaching my goals for the season.”

The Jeddah-born former Al-Ahli striker, who speaks fluent English and joined Al-Hilal in 2020 after five years at Al-Raed, added: “Unfortunately, I had a big injury at the beginning of the season, and you have to start from scratch to get back into the team. I guess only time will give me this opportunity. I’ll still continue training in the best way and try to get my minutes and do the best until I get my position in the first (11).”

Even if they do come from the bench, minutes in Al-Hilal’s next game will be precious. The much-anticipated Riyadh derby at the King Fahd International Stadium on Friday will see Al-Hilal take on Al-Nassr with a four-point advantage over their capital city rivals. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. Saudi time and Al-Shehri cannot wait for the next big game in his distinguished career. He has no doubts how important a fixture it is.

“It’s the biggest derby in Saudi Arabia, maybe the Middle East,” said Al-Shehri. “This is the first derby with all these international stars coming, so it’s going to be a big game — but in the end it’s a three-point game.

“I know it’s very important for the fans, but we will still be top of the table (regardless of the result) and the important thing is winning the league in the end. We promise to do our best for the fans, as we have done over the past few seasons, and keep our heads up and give them trophies to enjoy.”