Mo Salah magic and the mantle of the world’s best

  • The diminutive Egyptian forward’s breathtaking close control and finish has left rival defenders despairing this season, and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp grinning ear-to-ear.
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah(REUTERS)
Published on Oct 20, 2021 10:51 PM IST
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ByRudraneil Sengupta

“A goal from another planet,” said Gary Neville, the awe in his voice having the usual effect of lifting it by two octaves, as he strained to explain the thrill of what he had just seen, doing comms on the October 3 game between Liverpool and Manchester City.

What he had just seen was this: with the match poised at 1-1 less than 15 minutes from the final whistle, but with City dominating on nearly all counts, Salah received an innocuous pass from Curtis Jones near the right touchline with three City players surrounding him. City’s Joao Cancelo came charging in to try and take the ball quickly from behind, but Salah shielded it well, facing the stand, before sharply changing angle. Now he was facing Bernardo Silva, who moved in to take the ball. Except Salah rolled his foot over it, and in what was the beginning of his magic move, accelerated past a wrong-footed Silva.

Salah was in the box. He still had two defenders on him. Aymeric Laporte tried to close the space and Salah cut right, taking Laporte with him, before pulling the ball in sharply to his left. Laporte pirouetted aimlessly like a man punched in the head and about to crash head first to the ground. Now Salah was free. Now he was surging towards the goal. The angle was tight, it was on his wrong foot, though perhaps there is no such thing for Salah, because the shot was unstoppable.

This was Salah at his absolute best, displaying the range of his breathtaking abilities and proving yet again that there is no such thing as an innocuous pass when he is the recipient of the ball. Shielding the ball with grit and power despite his 5ft9 frame? Yes. A mesmeric dribble? Yes, two times. Feints that leave the defender on his bum? Yes. Burning acceleration? Yes. Hugely powerful shot? Yes.

For good measure, the Egyptian forward scored a replica of his wonder goal against Watford a week later, bringing his tally to 12 goals and four assists from the 11 matches he has played in Liverpool colours this season. Salah plays, Salah scores.

Which brings us to the question, is he the best player in the world right now?

It is possible to say yes to that question without taking anything away from the once-in-a-generation, untouchable career graphs of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Come on, who is better than him?” manager Jurgen Klopp said after the Watford game. “We don’t have to talk about what Messi and Ronaldo have done for world football and their dominance but, right now, he is the best.”

Which simply means Liverpool again look like they looked in 2019-2020, the season when they ended a 30-year wait for the league title, with the kind of performance through the season that is the stuff of legends.

The 2020-21 season was a mild pause for breath for a side who have been otherwise on a steep and vertiginous climb in the world of football ever since Klopp took over. It has been six years—a proper Klopp era—and no Liverpool player has had a bigger impact in those years than the Egyptian forward with a crazy head of hair charging into the opponent’s box like a man possessed.

Back in the 2016-17 season, it was new signing Sadio Mane who gave Klopp’s Liverpool that edge—and he continues to do so. Mane found the ideal partner next season in Salah, a Chelsea reject in whom Klopp and his scouts had seen something no one else had. He ended the season with 44 goals in all competitions, pulling Liverpool into the Champions League final. The little winger had found massive wings.

That final was lost, but not the next one, in a truly eye-popping season in which Liverpool lorded over Europe but failed to win the Premier League despite losing just one of their 38 matches and picking up 97 points. It’s just that Manchester City had 98.

Salah of course finished the league among its top scorers, tied on 22 goals with Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Next season was Liverpool’s league redemption, and yet again Salah was the team’s top scorer (23 across competitions). Even in the blip of their 2020-21 season, Salah scored 31 goals across competitions and was behind the league’s top scorer, Harry Kane, by just one goal.

Salah has looked unstoppable ever since he donned the Liverpool red, but this season may be his best yet.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021