LONDON: Gustav Wikheim could be forgiven for having mixed feelings when he watched FC Midtjylland take on Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League on Oct. 27.
The Norwegian winger left the Danish giants to sign for Al-Fateh in 2019 but seeing his former teammates take on the English powerhouse merely increased his motivation to help his Saudi Arabian team into Asia’s equivalent competition.
It would be quite a jump for the club based in the football-mad east of the country to return to the continent’s flagship club tournament for only a third time but it is at least heading in the right direction.
A solid start to the new season is reflected in its current position of joint fifth.
Two wins from the opening three games, including an opening day victory over the big-spending Al-Nassr, came as a relief, as much of the 27-year-old’s first season in Saudi Arabia was spent in the relegation zone.
“It was a new experience for me, the first time to be in this position as a player,” Wikheim, who won the 2018 Danish league title, told Arab News.
“It was very stressful and it is not something we want to go through again. To be honest, last season we felt we had a decent team and played quite well but just didn’t get the results we wanted. There was a lot of pressure around and to go down with this team would have been a big disappointment.”
Al-Fateh climbed out of the dropzone in the final weeks of the season. The trajectory has continued upward.
“We have a better team now though we haven’t changed too many players. We are happy with how the season has started and want to keep moving forward.”
Yannick Ferrera, a young Belgian coach, took over in October 2019, and, like Wikheim, has had time to adapt to Saudi Arabian football.
“The coach came in and put his mark on the team. He has done a good job and was a part of the saving operation last season. He has a new contract now and he is looking to the future, we all are.”
According to the attacker, the club’s official priority this season is not just to survive but to steer clear of any kind of relegation battle.
“With 10 games of the season left, we want to have no worries at all about going down and then we can see where we can finish in the table.”
It could be a high position. With seven points from the first three games the sky seemed to be the limit but a 3-1 loss to Al-Shabab ensured that Al-Fateh entered the international break with feet safely on the ground. The former Norway U-23 international was impressed with how the 2012 champions kept the pressure on.
“Al-Shabab looked very good and have a great team ethic but, for me, Al-Hilal are the standout team. They are really professional with great players and have almost a European feel from a tactical point of view.”
Overall, the Norwegian has been impressed by the standard in the country.
“The football has surprised me as the level was higher than I expected. It is good and I would compare it to Denmark and say it is about the same. It is different in that there is less focus on tactical play here and more on the individual quality that can win matches when compared to Europe but that side is improving too.”
Being a winger offers a chance to get a close look at Saudi Arabian full-backs and Wikheim laughs at the thought.
“They are intense! A lot of them are fast and quick and take more chances than those in Europe in terms of trying to get the ball as well as positioning. They always present an interesting challenge.”
It is one that, as a foreign player, he is keen to show others that he can overcome.
“I do feel a responsibility to be as good as I can be. We come from overseas and we have to show a different kind of football, though of course I know that people here know how to play. I just want to be one of the best.”
It helps that there are a number of European players at the club, such as Mitchell te Vrede of the Netherlands, Ukrainian goalkeeper Maksym Koval and Serbian striker Sasa Jovanovic.
“We help each other and we talk and speak about how we can take the next step for the team and it helps some guys who have been here longer and can help you get settled.”
Overall though, despite missing out on games like Liverpool, there are no regrets from the forward about his move from Scandinavia.
“I won the title and the cup in Denmark and I was there for three years and was ready for something new. When the chance came, I talked to people who had been before and did some research with the family. We wanted a new experience and so far, it has been a very positive one for all of us and I can’t wait for the rest of the season.”