Friday 25 May 2018

Paul Hayward: Salah lifts himself into Anfield folklore

Liverpool's two-goal hero deserves to be compared with the all-time greats

Mo Salah curls the opening goal past the Roma defence to give Liverpool the lead at Anfield
last night. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine
Mo Salah curls the opening goal past the Roma defence to give Liverpool the lead at Anfield last night. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

Paul Hayward

These great Anfield nights - of which you will have heard plenty - work best when Liverpool have a star they can show off to the world, to make the planet jealous. That player is Mo Salah, whose first goal here stunned the audience with its suddenness and beauty. The goals you never forget are the ones followed by a moment of incredulity. So it was when Salah stopped and paused just inside the Roma penalty box, looked up and curled a shot at a target about the size of a shoebox.

In classic world-class-player style, Salah pretty much decided to score. The Anfield crowd were not contemplative for long. Soon, an engulfing storm of noise crashed round the stands and his name was chanted with thunderous intensity.

The build-up to this game featured much nostalgia about Rome in 1984 and the five European Cup wins scored by this club. Those victories were supreme collective efforts, but also featured great individuals. There is a long way to go before Jurgen Klopp's team can join those European champions of the 1970s and '80s, but they have a player deserving of comparison with the club's finest representatives.

With Salah's two first-half goals against a Roma side whose prior knowledge of him was no use whatsoever, you could feel the PFA Player of the Year easing into the company of Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard.

Spectacular

He would need to stick around a while and maintain these standards to become true Anfield royalty, but his form this year has been spectacular, and his first-half brace spoke of a player without limits at this level.

Salah needed no new storylines, but trying to knock his old club out of the Champions League was a fresh plot for the man whose name is cheered at double-volume by the Anfield crowd.

Not that the role of slayer sat comfortably with him. For both his goals he raised his palms to spurn the usual celebration. Scoring twice in the first half of a Champions League semi-final first-leg entitles the author to rejoice in any way imaginable. Salah, though, had scored twice in front of the Roma fans, and adopted the apologetic pose of someone embarrassed about the pain they were causing.

His first was that sweetly-curled, neatly-aimed lifter-and-dipper from right to left into the corner of Alisson Becker's net: the kind of big Champions League goal that reverberates around the football world.

The second was another of his specialities: the dink over the onrushing goalkeeper after a dash through the middle. These goals also excite the masses, because everyone seems to know how hard they are to score. First, they need to be timed right, relative to the keeper's approach. Then, the chip has to be firm but airy to clear the last line of defence.

Another respectful celebration - but this time Roberto Firmino, who had supplied the pass, kicked the air in exultation. Roma, who overturned a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona in the previous round - were shattered, and fell apart defensively in the second half, with Salah providing the pass for Sadio Mane to make it three and Firmino adding a fourth from yet another swerving run by Salah - then a fifth, with his head, before Roma scored twice.

Against the team that re-started his career after a spell in the shadows at Chelsea, the Premier League's No 1 player (as voted by the pros) ascended to that level where anything he wanted to do was possible. He was free to run and carve space where he chose. The game was his. Not only his, because Liverpool were sensationally good, and Mane, after some errant first-half finishing, joined Firmino on the highest plane.

In the preamble, there was a teasy exchange between Salah and Radja Nainggolan, and a hug and a joke from Edin Dzeko. But most Roma players confined themselves to a hand clasp or a slap of the shoulder, with no eye contact. It was strictly business. As Klopp said before the game: "Italian defenders are famous for not having friendly games. So I think Mo will feel very early in the game that they are not his team-mates any more. Then he can strike back in a football way."

And strike back he did, less than a year after leaving Roma for £39.6m. In Italy, as Klopp pointed out, Salah played wide to accommodate Dzeko in the centre. At Liverpool, Salah has come to play wherever the hell he likes. So good was he, and so crushing were Liverpool, that Klopp withdrew him for Danny Ings after 75 minutes, and the Kop chanted Ings' name, perhaps in sympathy for the size of the task he had been given: replacing Salah, whose performance here will pass into folklore.

Forty-one goals in all competitions became 42 and then 43, against a club who sold him and were then obliterated by him. You tend to see a gap this big between one player and the other 21 on the pitch only when Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi are in action.

Against a chaotic Roma side, admittedly, Salah placed all mercy aside and set about declaring Liverpool's serious intention to win this competition in Kiev next month.

Their European progress under Klopp is compelling enough by itself, but feels even better with Salah's magic to make the heart leap.(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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