Tuesday 20 August 2019

Chelsea foiled Liverpool's bid for Salah four years ago - but he's been worth waiting for

Liverpool v Chelsea, Live BT Sport 1, 5.30

Mohamed Salah was on the verge of joining Liverpool from Basel four years ago but opted for Chelsea at the 11th hour. Photo: Getty Images
Mohamed Salah was on the verge of joining Liverpool from Basel four years ago but opted for Chelsea at the 11th hour. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

It is late January 2014 and Liverpool are awaiting the phone call from Basel confirming the £12 million signing of Mohamed Salah.

A deal has been verbally agreed with the Basel president but he wants to re-consider overnight. Personal terms are not thought to be an issue. Liverpool's scouting team have been watching the winger for six months and Salah's arrival is to be the culmination of weeks of negotiations.

A few weeks earlier, the club's scouting team of Barry Hunter, Dave Fallows and current director of football Michael Edwards convinced then manager Brendan Rodgers to travel to Germany to watch Salah face Schalke in the Champions League.

He believed his Luis Suárez inspired title-chasing side is about to benefit from the Egyptian's pace and goal threat.

The morning call from Basel does not come. Instead, Liverpool receive an email from the Swiss club.

"The player has decided to join Chelsea."

There is no explanation to what has changed in a matter of hours. Salah's representative is not accepting phone calls.

Nearly four years on this is still recalled at Anfield as one of the more curious transfer twists of recent years.

Smelt

"It all smelt a bit funny," is how one person familiar with the negotiations described it.

"It is hard to take," Rodgers said at the time. "It's the construction of the whole deal, not only with the player and the agent but also Basel as a football club. It was deemed in this case that we couldn't do a deal and Chelsea could. So the boy has gone there."

Chelsea's late move was not unusual. They had acted similarly a year earlier when securing Willian when first Liverpool, and then Tottenham's negotiations had reached an advanced stage.

But what happened to Salah once he headed to Stamford Bridge, and how little he was used, added to the intrigue as to why Chelsea pursued him. He would make only 19 appearances for the club, including just 10 starts.

The striking difference in his performances at Stamford Bridge and at Liverpool having finally made the move to Anfield three years later make it more mystifying.

There are two theories as to why Salah's Chelsea and Liverpool career contrast so much.

First, there is the diplomatic view.

When Salah moved from Basel to Stamford Bridge he was an emerging talent, only 22 and finding himself competing with high class team-mates Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar. He was not physically ready for English football, and struggled with the tactical demands of Jose Mourinho. Only after moving to Italian football did he mature into the fully developed player he has become since joining Liverpool.

Given Chelsea have won two league titles in the last three seasons, for all the criticism of the quality players they recruited and then appeared to lose too soon - Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku come into same category - they are yet to suffer.

Then there is the alternative, more colourful, conspiratorial belief; that Chelsea's primary motive when signing Salah was to prevent Liverpool getting him. For Chelsea Salah was a useful back-up option. At Anfield he would have added strength to a team fighting with Chelsea for the Premier League.

While Liverpool were trying to close the deal, Chelsea were in negotiations with Manchester United to sell Juan Mata for £37m. They knew Salah was available and were ready and able to offer whatever was needed to gazump Liverpool.

Mourinho led the charm offensive by calling Salah directly, and his agent went cold on Liverpool who later learned whatever they were prepared to offer, Chelsea would keep adding digits. It is telling that not long after moving to Chelsea, Salah changed representative.

Friends of Salah have since spoken about the contrast between the Mourinho who courted the winger and barely selected him once signed.

The idea that Chelsea's move was an opportunistic act of sabotage against Liverpool is fanciful, but their pursuit was late enough to provoke the suggestion and the less Salah played the more those around him felt he had been signed by the wrong club for the wrong reason.

Whether a world-class coach such as Mourinho would really ignore the first-team claims of such a rapid, gifted player had he excelled in training may require a greater stretch of imagination.

Nevertheless, in the last 24 hours even ex-team mate Hazard has expressed his surprise at how little Salah was used stating 'in training he would do everything'.

That Liverpool returned for Salah three years later at three times the price left their own recruiters open to criticism, but the club felt his subsequent performances on loan at Fiorentina and then having signed for Roma validated their earlier assessment.

Timing

Salah's current agent Ramy Abbas Issa, proved to be more straightforward to deal with than his predecessor. Despite paying an extra £24m, there is also a feeling at Anfield the timing may have worked in their favour. Would Salah have thrived as much under Rodgers, who was never comfortable playing Jurgen Klopp's favoured 4-3-3?

Whatever the circumstances, Salah's brief Chelsea career has looked more peculiar with every goal and assist he has produced in a Liverpool jersey.

He is unlikely to state it publicly - he has declined interviews since his move to Merseyside - but this weekend's visit of his former club is the fixture he has been looking forward to more than any.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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