Liverpool knew there was something in Mohamed Salah but they probably didn’t think he would end up being as good as this.
The £36.9 million it took to sign him from Roma last summer and a long wait now seem well worth it. As far back as December 2013, Basel’s winger was wanted at Anfield. Brendan Rodgers had ambitious designs on challenging for the Premier League title, and the Egyptian flyer was a player who could add a different dimension to Liverpool’s attack.
Instead, he ended up at Chelsea that following January, and would play a walk-on role in Liverpool’s heartbreak of April 2014.
When Steven Gerrard made his infamous slip against Chelsea, it was after receiving a pass from Mamadou Sakho, who had checked back infield after Salah moved into his sightline.
That was one of only six Premier League starts for Chelsea, as Salah joined that lengthy list of future stars who Jose Mourinho has turned his nose up at and allowed to leave. Manchester United’s manager might occasionally wonder why the two best players in England of the 2017/18 season have both been recipients of his disinterest.
If Kevin de Bruyne is the first violinist in Manchester City’s orchestra of virtuosos, Salah has been carrying a piano on his back. In January and February, calendar months in which Jurgen Klopp’s Reds struggled in the German’s first two seasons on Merseyside, Salah’s goals have kept the show on the road. A relentless foraging for goals – five in five matches in 2018 – have Liverpool on course for the top four, and covered for a team with deficiencies in other areas.
Neither Loris Karius nor Simon Mignolet is a credible goalkeeper. Virgil van Dijk’s arrival for £75 million is yet to solve defensive problems that date back to Rodgers’ reign; Liverpool have conceded six goals in the Dutchman’s three Premier League games so far. In midfield, the likes of Emre Can and Jordan Henderson toil and Liverpool tried in vain to get Naby Keita to Anfield this winter instead of the deal for next summer previously struck with RB Leipzig.
The problems that Leicester have lately had with Riyad Mahrez since denying him a dream move to Manchester City have shown the sense in accepting the inevitable and cashing in Philippe Coutinho for £142m, but that sale robbed Liverpool of his direct running, pace and mercurial invention. Salah has so far proved capable of covering for the shortfall. And his goals output also led to Daniel Sturridge being considered obsolete by Klopp, who allowed the Englishman to leave on loan to West Brom at the end of January’s transfer window.
The usual starting position for Salah is from the flanks, but the aim is almost always of ending up as the furthest, deepest prong of the attack and he has scored a dazzling range of strikes. His chip from 40 yards back over Ederson ended up being the decisive goal in the win over City on January 14. He had earlier supplied the assist for Sadio Mane to score Liverpool’s third before they eventually held on to win a classic match by a 4-3 scoreline.
Last Sunday, it looked as if Salah had again stolen victory with an injury time run that snaked from the right touchline into the centre, taking him beyond six befuddled Spurs defenders. A sharp finish from the narrowest of angles deceived Hugo Lloris. The awarding of a late penalty for Harry Kane to grab Tottenham’s second equaliser curtailed Liverpool’s celebrations, but if Klopp is a manager who exhorts his teams to attack in a berserk, chaotic fashion then in Salah he has found his ideal attacking player, someone whose second goal on Sunday was compared favourably to Lionel Messi.
Unpredictability defines Salah, both in terms of the positional ghosting with which he pulls defenders out of their comfort zone and the pertinent question of whether he is actually going to score. In amidst the goals, there have been some howling spurned sitters – yet he appears unafraid to miss. Those energy levels will ensure that another chance is likely to come along soon. Twenty-one Premier League goals in 25 appearances have been scored at a rate of every 93 minutes; he has made the quickest scoring start of any Liverpool player in history.
Opponents know all about him, but are struggling for answers.
Only Manchester United of England’s top six have stopped him scoring, and did so by digging a trench on the edge of their 18-yard box at Anfield.
Liverpool are entering their season’s business end, with Southampton on Sunday an opponent they have not beaten away in the Premier League since 2015, and with Porto to visit in the Champions League on Wednesday. How far can Salah’s runaway train carry them?