Tuesday 20 August 2019

Cometh the hour, cometh the Mo to make history

Mohamed Salah lifts the Champions League Trophy. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Mohamed Salah lifts the Champions League Trophy. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Barney Ronay

In the end it had to be Mo. If this game really did have to be pointed one way by a 22-second moment of chance, a fluke, a random element, it was probably right that the man stepping up to benefit should be Mohamed Salah.

Salah has been the catalyst, chief cutting edge and uplifting creative force of a team that can now call itself champions of Europe for the sixth time.

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Before kick-off the air inside the Wanda Metropolitano had felt ready to burst. This is a vast concrete flying saucer dumped down on the fringes of the city between the motorway arteries. An hour before the start its steeply banked tiers had been crammed with a mass of red, the familiar portable pageantry of flags and banners and bedsheets. And through the day Madrid's open spaces were thronged with red and white, the hordes in the squares, a pair of strolling Salahs, a Fowler getting out of a taxi, a Dalglish in the side-street café.

Nobody really remembers the finals. No one remembers the performance. What they remember is those storied names. Here it was Salah's turn, albeit in the most startling way.

As the air crackled and heaved and finally settled, Liverpool kicked off this final. The ball was suddenly moving. And then, with 22 seconds gone, the game seemed to fall apart.

What was Moussa Sissoko pointing at? Deep in the right-hand side of his penalty area, faced by Sadio Mané, who had stopped and was looking around for a pass, Sissoko raised his right arm, like a boxing padman offering a target to hit.

Mané took the invitation, flicking the ball up on to Sissoko's chest and then down on to that outstretched bullseye.

There was a moment of stillness, and then a huge rolling gurgle of disbelief from the red end. The Spurs players stood like a freeze frame, waiting for an undo, a reverse, for the echo of the starter's pistol, a chance to re-set.

It was never coming. Salah waited four times longer than the game had already run for the air to settle. His first touch was to spank the penalty kick hard and straight down the middle. Maybe this was that 26-point league gap reaching in from off the board and tweaking the pieces, a goal's head-start handed down by some celestial committee. For a while the game stuttered. It looked like it was two teams at the end an extended, draining break, thrown into the tensest night of their season, struggling for air at times.

Spurs looked frazzled. Passes drifted out. Touches were heavy. Mauricio Pochettino appeared on his touchline grappling and grasping at the air, bellowing wildly, black-suited, like a man throttling a pair of invisible wolfhounds.

Salah didn't stand out in that first half, was even poor at times. But then nobody really stood out, although the Liverpool full-backs caught the eye.

Salah touched the ball 17 times. Five were shots at goal, as many shots as everyone else on the pitch put together. Only the goal was actually on target.

But then this is often the way. Salah is an outrageous talent, but it is a part of his charm that he has these moments when he looks suddenly like someone playing with the dog in the garden, or having a kick-about on the beach.

But then, simply being here, the starriest presence on this pitch was a mark passed. This stage has been dominated by the primly-schooled European elite. But Salah is not a scion of club football aristocracy.

He is instead a break-out star for North African football, here purely on his own irresistible late-blooming talent. And from here, next stop: the Ballon D'or. It is of course early, although not that early, given the rhythm of the season. But Salah is surely the front-runner now to win the top gong. The top scorer for the Champions League finalists, and a scorer in the final. Twenty-nine goals this season.

The supreme cutting edge in this team, but also a thrilling, uplifting presence too, all ferreting imagination, unusual angles, almost carefree moments in the middle of all that hustle. Without Virgil Van Dijk Liverpool wouldn't be champions of Europe. Without Salah they wouldn't have reached the final two years in a row, wouldn't have been transformed, or given that sense of other gears. Salah's first game for Liverpool was at Watford in August 2017. He scored then too. Seven members of the Liverpool team that day started here.

The catalyst, the magic dust that has energised this team, is Salah himself.

Sometimes players do this, just as Eric Cantona was the spark to ignite a 20-year era at Manchester United.

And even as this final meandered through a tense second half there was a grandeur there, a feeling of something falling into place. There had talk before this game that Liverpool had to win here, that failure would have been a fatal dent in the regeneration of the club. This was never true.

By any human metric simply being present two years in a row was a sublime achievement for the players, the management, the owners, the - God help us - brand. Salah has led them to this point. In Madrid, as the game wound to its end point, he seemed to be leading them to the ultimate prize.

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