Sunday 22 September 2019

Paul Hayward: 'Match-winner Salah shows he has answer to those who said he was a one-season wonder'


Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. Photo: Reuters

Paul Hayward

Mo Salah needed more than half an hour to subdue Kalidou Koulibaly, a mighty presence in Napoli's defence, but when the breakthrough came it was worth a lifetime's wait. If an opponent is too strong in body, beat him with your mind, as Liverpool's star player did with a beautiful piece of deception.

Salah's goal, which also featured a nutmeg of David Ospina, the Napoli goalkeeper, was the product of the scorer going outside when he would normally cut inside the penalty box, and Koulibaly not seeing it coming.

As Salah carried the ball off to the right to set up the finish with his least-favoured foot, the poor victim veered the wrong way like an extra lurching across a panto stage in the wrong direction.

Then the ball was steered between Ospina's legs for Salah's ninth Champions League goal for Liverpool at Anfield. Only Steven Gerrard, with 14, has scored more here.

But no celebration - again. Four days after Salah's muted response to a hat-trick at Bournemouth, last season's player of the year marked a vital goal with a rather earnest response before dropping to the floor to perform a Muslim bow.

Such an elaborate goal on a do-or-die European Anfield night would normally spark emotional overload around this ground.

The finish will, though, continue to glow in the memory.

There are a handful of artists in world football who could assemble such a move so cooly and precisely - and Liverpool have one of them, in a scarlet No 11 shirt.

Perish the thought that Liverpool were content to leave this competition quietly and return instead to the quest to win a first league title for 28 years - a mission that is going rather well.

Nevertheless, after 16 games 12 months ago, Liverpool were fourth in the Premier League, 16 points behind Manchester City, who were 11 points clear at the top and coasting away from Manchester United (you remember Man Utd?).

The turnaround is dramatic - even with City not regressing an inch on last season's form.

Heading into this weekend, Liverpool lead City by a point: a testament, mainly, to the club's defensive reinforcements.

Alisson, the goalkeeper, and Virgil Van Dijk, the iron leader, have bestowed a new dawn on Klopp, who also has top drawer full-backs in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, and a potentially world-class young centre-half in Joe Gomez (currently injured). But Salah, as we saw, remains the precious link between playing well but falling short and winning big games by dint of individual brilliance.

This, seven months after Liverpool reached their eighth European Cup final, on a disastrous night for Salah, who injured a shoulder in a one-sided wrestling match with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos.

Liverpool have lost five of their last seven European fixtures on the road, while being the last unbeaten side in the Premier League. But their record here was daunting to all but the Napoli striker Dries Mertens, who remembers seeing the 'This is Anfield' tunnel sign several years ago and reflecting: "I'm looking at this small thing and thinking: Is this so special?"

He might also have learned since that Liverpool were unbeaten in 18 European games at Anfield stretching back to October 2014.

In this red redoubt, teams face the expectation - if not always the reality - that Liverpool have something special stored up, that irresistible communal passion will find a way.

But Carlo Ancelotti, managing his eighth team in the Champions League (a record), is an old hand and could draw on formidable stoppers in Koulibaly and Raul Albiol.

As Napoli chased the game after half-time, Liverpool lived for the counter-attack, but remained thwarted, despite applying intense pressure to Ospina's goal.

Always, Salah was the one Napoli could not legislate for.

For the first-half goal, Koulibaly took his revenge, lunging at Salah's foot to draw a booking. He could do nothing though about the spirit and growing maturity of this Liverpool side, who continued to deny Napoli possession.

To see last season's beaten finalists go out in the group stage this time around would have been painful, and worrying, especially if Liverpool falter in the league.

But Salah had other ideas. His superb trickery opened up the road to spring again in Europe. Those who called him a one-season wonder can queue to apologise.

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport