Al Muwallad carries Saudi Arabia hopes to Russia
Riyadh: On September 5, 2017, Fahad Al Muwallad scored the most important goal of his career - a scorching shot that propelled Saudi Arabia all the way to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Finals.
It was the only goal in Saudi Arabia's 1-0 qualifying win against Japan but it was enough to secure the side a place in the Finals for the first time in 12 years.
It was a heady moment for the 23-year-old, originally a substitute, who was feted as a national hero at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.
Since then the Al-Ittihad midfielder, who grew up in the port city of Jeddah, has emerged as one of the kingdom's brightest young talents, and was among key players sent off to Spain to hone their skills for the second half of this season.
The agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia's General Sport Authority, was aimed at giving its promising players more top-flight experience before the FIFA World Cup.
Al Muwallad played for Levante -- and although his game time was limited he became the first Saudi to appear in La Liga when he was brought on against Leganes from the bench earlier this month.
"Football in Saudi Arabia is strong, it is a strong league," Al Muwallad said in February.
"But Spain is stronger and faster."
Next season, Al Muwallad will return to Al-Ittihad, who recently won the Kings Cup in Saudi Arabia.
Al Muwallad's success prompted the Saudi football authorities to strike another deal with Manchester United, scoring the young talent 10 days of practise with the Premier League club ahead of the FIFA World Cup.
The midfielder is known for his speed, skill and ability to penetrate defences, especially from the right side of the field, from where he scored the crucial goal against Japan.
Al Muwallad has made 41 international appearances, scoring 10 goals, most recently in a friendly against Ukraine in March.
In Russia, Saudi Arabia are in Group A and will face off against the host nation, as well as Egypt and Uruguay in the first round.
"It is expected that with Russia and Uruguay, Fahad Al Muwallad will start as the attacker," said Saudi sports commentator Khaled al-Shenaif.
"You need Fahad for the speed... you don't need a conventional striker," he said, noting that Al Muwallad as a midfielder has in the past provided a better attacking option than the forwards themselves.