BY DAN BILLINGHAM
There is one school of thought that argues football has morphed from being a team game to more of an individual sport at the elite level – by highlighting the astonishing domination of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. It’s not one I agree with – whenever you see a kid with Messi’s name on their shirt it’s seemingly always in Barcelona colours. It’s also been a long time since a World Cup was defined by a single player as they were in the eras of Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Pele. There have been rare occasions though when footballers make such a massive difference to their side they start to push at the boundaries of what keeps the sport a team game versus an individual pursuit. We’ve been fortunate to have one in the Premier League this season.
There is nothing too linear about Mo Salah’s career path – no Jamie Vardy trajectory from nowhere to everywhere narrative. As heartwarming as any story of an African player making the big time tends to be, Salah was always touted for the top, being named Africa’s top young talent at the age of 19 when Basel astutely brought him to Europe. His time in the illustrious group of attacking midfielders Jose Mourinho overlooked at Chelsea was hardly a down and out phase. What Salah has done is every bit as rare as a rags to riches footballing tale though and should be just as celebrated – he has seized every last bit of potential in his 5 foot 9 inch frame and moulded the Premier League to its shape, wiry hair included.
The Egyptian has stacked up so many stellar performances this season that it is easy to think this was always destined to be the case. It wasn’t. Numerous great talents have come to the Premier League and barely left a mark on this colossal beast of expectation, speculation and mega remuneration. Shevchenko, Forlan, Falcao, Veron and Pique to name just a few. As admired as Salah became in Italy, there was reason to ask last summer, just with any new addition to the Premier League, whether he would make the desired impact. His 15 goals for Roma last season was a handy return, but those goals only came at a slightly better rate to Liverpool’s previous signing from Roma, Fabio Borini. As the 11th top scorer in Serie A last season, Salah scored just over half as many goals as team-mate Edin Dzeko, who is not exactly regarded as a Premier League legend.
While he had been famed for delivering spectacular goals, unless Jurgen Klopp and his scouts had seen something everyone else had missed, Salah wasn’t brought to Liverpool primarily for his scoring rate. Ferocious pace was the only thing guaranteed with his signing, and everything else remained to be written. It is tempting to picture Klopp’s recruitment of Salah akin to an enthusiastic school chemistry teacher chucking an explosive element into a bowl of water.
The result has been spectacular. How much Klopp’s own drive has rubbed off and how much Firmino’s selfless forward play has given space for Salah to flourish is open to question. What isn’t in any doubt is that the Egyptian has seized his chance – gifting Premier League followers the chance to see a very good player grow into a truly outstanding one.
Four goals in six pre-season friendlies was the perfect start to Salah’s Anfield career, with a nonchalant chip of the Hertha Berlin goalkeeper the pick of that bunch. Just as important was the verve he showed in those pre-season appearances, revealing a reserve of sheer positivity that would propel him to define the season. You can’t criticise anyone who scores five goals in his first ten league matches at a new club, but Salah’s unstoppable form in the rest of the season made that start a gentle one by his standards.Embed from Getty Images
His goals this season are too numerous to cover in full – having reached the 40 mark that only Ian Rush and Roger Hunt have previously managed for Liverpool. Wriggling his way past three Tottenham defenders and dinking the ball over Hugo Lloris in stoppage time in February is one of the most memorable strikes, as is a curler into the top corner from the edge of the area against Southampton in November. A dance around two Bournemouth defenders from the side of the box before slotting in is another. There have been significant strikes among them too – the opener in the first-leg of the Champions League tie with Manchester City, when the red smoke had barely subsided around Anfield, the killer away goal in the second leg and the dramatic stoppage-time penalty that sent Egypt into the World Cup finals.
Comparisons have increasingly been made between Salah and Messi as the season has worn on. It’s actually nothing new, with the ‘Egyptian Messi’ tag being used and hero status granted in his homeland as far back as Salah’s first season in the Champions League for Basel back in 2013. For some it’s heresy to dare to place Salah in the same bracket as the Barcelona legend. Messi has at least a ten-year head start when it comes to sustained spectacular success in the art of bamboozling defenders. Salah has put in a season to match that of Messi and Ronaldo though, as he vies for the European Golden Boot. He has joined Ronaldo and Luis Suarez as just the third man to score over 30 goals in a Premier League season since the turn of the century. The most apt comparison to Messi is perhaps a visual one. As well as being nimble attackers who buzz around the final third, both share an intense enjoyment for the game that shows with an immensely positive attitude on the pitch. They are possibly the only two players in world football who seem likely to score whenever they get the ball in the remote vicinity of the penalty area. Salah’s best exhibition of his sheer confidence came in his four-goal burst against Watford in March, when he seemed to have almost acquired the power to send opposing defenders twisting and toppling on their backsides through willpower alone. It was a day when the ball seemed always stuck to his feet or otherwise bouncing in his direction, with a preposterous third goal that saw Salah open up a gap between five opponents to calmly prod his shot through.
Salah’s decisive goal in the second leg of the Champions League against Manchester City in an otherwise quiet performance showed he has also picked up a bit of Ronaldo’s ability to not only be in the right place at the right time, but make those key moments happen. His obvious faith in his own powers appears to be underpinned by a level-headedness that has seen him donate generously to schools and hospitals in Egypt.Embed from Getty Images
At the age of 25, Salah is now the prime contender to be the first man to win the Ballon d’Or when time is eventually called on Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance of the competition. The argument gets raised that you have to win something to be a great footballer, but irrespective of what Liverpool can do in the Champions League, there is no need to pay that idea any attention. Southampton’s league positions in the mid-1990s are not something I have made space in my memory for – and probably barely interested me at the time – but I can gladly recall the gloriousness of Matt Le Tissier and his many thunderbolts.
Salah’s incredulous reaction to Harry Kane being awarded his recent ‘shoulder strike’ against Stoke provoked understandable amusement. Neither of this season’s two leading scorers seems to quite have the intensity that characterises the Ronaldo/Messi relationship, but should Kane and Salah continue their scoring rivalry in seasons to come, they could just push one another to become even better. A league being defined by two megastars would probably annoy some, but provide valuable inspiration to so many. We all like to be in a good team, whatever the surroundings might be, but more often than not in life you don’t choose who you get saddled with – which makes it even more encouraging when you see a guy like Mo Salah excel to the extent he can drive his whole team, and lift an entire country with the sheer power of his deft and deadly feet. Given the hype that is constantly generated in football these days on the team, man or crisis of the moment, it can be as difficult to find a proper context for success as it is for failure – Shay Given on Match of The Day analysed Salah’s four goals against Watford by twice saying “I don’t know what to say” as praise. The emergence of a new star in football is a massive boon though for a sport that has always thrilled the world with its most incredible individuals along with the collective might of its legendary teams. Salah is almost there, and within a wider world where people are perhaps increasingly getting to the top by dubious means, seeing an individual gain a true mastery of something as universal and measurable as football is as positive as a story can be.
FOLLOW DAN ON TWITTER @D_Billingham