Friday 24 May 2019

Comment: Mohamed Salah’s two different but equally brilliant Liverpool goals assert his place as world’s third-best player

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores their first goal. Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah scores their first goal. Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

Mark Critchley

“I don’t know what it is but I love it”, sang Liverpool’s 1984 European Cup winners in the tunnel before kick-off to that year’s final, at once bemusing and intimidating their Roman opponents.

Those same words, 34 years later, were inscribed on a specially-made banner in the Kop for this reunion with Roma, but the banner could have been displayed since the start of the season, for those 10 words could perfectly describe the Liverpool support’s relationship with one Mohamed Salah.

What is the Egyptian? A winger? A striker? A ‘space interpreter’? Or, after this his spectacular first-half salvo that inspired Liverpool to wrack up a 5-2 semi-final lead, shall we simply settle on calling him the third-best player in the world football?

It seems a fair assessment. There was some debate on Monday morning, hours after Salah was recognised by his peers as this season’s outstanding player, whether he was as ‘complete’ as his rival for the prize Kevin de Bruyne.

It was reminiscent of Eden Hazard’s remark in March that Salah is “more striker than a player” – a comment not meant as an insult, but one that in the weeks since has only seemed more and more inaccurate.

Salah is a ‘player’ and an exemplary one, but one whose combination of the simple and the sublime almost defies attempts at definition. Regulars at Anfield this season have been privileged enough to witness something that can only be called ‘different’.

For every two-yard tap-in, there is a majestic dinked finish or a thunderous strike from range that a simple ‘fox in the box’ would rarely, if ever, score. His two goals here – the 42nd and 43rd of his spectacular season – were different but equally beautiful, borne of a genius that all but a handful of opponents have struggled to live with.

Even his former club, so familiar with these special talents, had no answer to them.

Eusebio di Francesco said his side would not compromise their ideals in awe of the free-scoring Salah and in the initial stages, a suicidally high defensive line protected by diligent wing-backs tucking in seemed to work. A highly-strung Liverpool did not get the quick start they wanted.

But the attack that Jurgen Klopp has assembled demands respect, Salah more than any player. When his marker Juan Jesus earned a yellow card, Roma’s early resistance subsided. The Egyptian was a little quicker to the ball, a touch more composed, and the onslaught began in earnest.

There is a legend, perhaps apocryphal, that when Caligula found his legions too weak to cross the English Channel, he declared war on the body of water itself, stabbing the sea with his sword and carrying shells home as trophies of war.

Roma will return to the Eternal City with slightly more to show, thanks to the two late goals that keep this tie alive, but for the most part this modern invasion proved just as successful. Barring a repeat of those heroics against Barcelona, this contest has already been decided by its finest gladiator.

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