‘Mo Salah is a better human being than he is a football player. And he’s one of the best football players in the world.’
That was the Egyptian’s entry in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019 list.
The football part is definitely true. And remember when he apologised for having the temerity to score four goals against Watford?
His performance against Leeds at Anfield on Saturday evening would have made anybody go “boom”, or “fffffff” as Gary Neville emoted on Monday Night Football. “That is some player, that,” said Neville. He almost sounded surprised. Outside the professional awards that corroborate what he actually does on the pitch, there’s still a prevailing shrug of the shoulder attitude towards Salah from some of the rank and file. Maybe they (we?) are looking at him through the wrong prism.
He burst onto Liverpool’s scene in 2017 with a mind-blowing 44 goals; he was the Egyptian King that season for sure, a triumphant return to England for a man who had drifted under Jose Mourinho’s squad bubble at Chelsea. Although the crown hasn’t really slipped with two more-than-decent follow-up seasons, the throne doesn’t seem so valued anymore. He is a prince now to Sadio Mane’s majesty. Salah is just that predictable player that cuts onto his left foot (yawn) and wastes chances or does not pass. It has become almost commonplace to belittle him. Saturday was a stark reminder of what he does best.
Mohamed Salah for Liverpool against Leeds:
◉ Most touches (87)
◉ Most completed passes in final third (35)
◉ Most shots (9)
◉ Most take-ons completed (7)
◉ Most chances created (4)
◉ Most shots on target (3)
◉ Most goals (3)
Mind-blowing numbers. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/yOzsa3sidT
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 12, 2020
Therein lies the workable, healthy tension within the Liverpool forward line – though Bobby Firmino stays out of any selfish arguments. Think of the Burnley game last season when Mane was steaming about passes that never came. The Brazilian is the nifty nuts and bolts man slave to the other two supercharged flyers.
Neville warmed to his previous theme that Mane is more likeable among fans and even teammates because he engages on and off the pitch whereas Salah is an ‘outsider’. It’s Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler all over again. Will Salah just march off to the next best thing when he’s done with Liverpool without so much as a glance backwards? What feeds the suspicion that better things lie elsewhere?
Two years ago, Neville predicted the forward would leave, saying: “I think it’s a little bit more simple in the sense of why Liverpool fans maybe don’t demonstrate that love for Salah, and it’s affinity and loyalty. I think there’s a feeling that he wants to go and play at Real Madrid, he’ll go to Barcelona, he’ll take the big move.”
The rumour mill has already restarted with Ronald Koeman apparently eyeing the Egyptian. But then Zinedine Zidane was courting his partner last year. What price is loyalty? Salah has always said the right things but do we think he doesn’t mean them? World-class stars come to Anfield now, you know.
A week after securing the title, Liverpool’s number 11 was genuinely moved, saying: “I can see people’s joy, and this is so important for all of us. I enjoy the atmosphere here…I love this place and I hope to stay for a long time. The atmosphere here is different to any other place. We have adapted well as a team and our understanding is perfect.”
When his work was done at the weekend, the newly coiffured one was readily available for interview with that permanent grin on his face. Asked if he felt the pressure to deposit a spot-kick in the final minutes, he quietly reminded Sky Sports that he had scored in a Champions League final in front of an actual live audience. That’s confidence. Salah is not trying to be the big guy in the big situation; he just is. He delivers everything with an assassin’s smile. You would not get the same from Mane.
“He looks mean, he looks hungry, he looks strong. His game is more mature.” 🔥
Could Mo Salah become the best player in the world? 🌍
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) September 15, 2020
Jurgen Klopp has no problem with those who only see things from the outside: “The numbers tell the story a little bit, all the rest you probably don’t know. But today’s a very good example as he put three more goals on his score list, but the performance all-round was absolutely exceptional in a game like this.”
This was genuine heartfelt praise for a “very special player”; those Reds fans who may have been groaning a little at a tail-off last season need more innocent eyes to appreciate exactly how sharp the African was here.
True appreciation is that here is a player that has made excellence commonplace. When you become bored of the ‘limitations’ of that, then the problem is with you.
Some Liverpool supporters may have watched the rapier-like movements of Timo Werner on Monday and secretly sighed. Come Sunday, who knows what they will think. Whatever happens, the Pharaoh might just outstrip everybody this season and still be the kind of guy who does it with a disarming wink. If that is selfish, I want to be like him.
Tim Ellis – follow him on Twitter