Writing about a world footballing superstar is a dangerous game these days. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi not only changed football on the pitch, but the way the sport is viewed and consumed off it. Their relentless competitiveness has harnessed feelings of rivalry and tribalism which transcend the respect between the two individuals. Born out of that, there is now a rather bizarre notion of fans supporting players rather than clubs. Take Liverpool, for example, where sections, albeit in the minority, have decreed themselves either Team Mane or Team Salah.
It is an idea that was perpetuated by the fact that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have long been in a battle for supremacy in the Reds’ attack. The tribalist nature of fandom these days means almost everything has to be black or white and many only deal in absolutes.
So many perceptions have become seen as fact; rather than a divide between the pair of them, as has long been suggested, there is a healthy rivalry which drives them on but never impacts their ability to work together. This piece will focus on Salah, while keeping in mind the tightrope which must be walked in order to examine his rather complex relationship with fans both inside and outside of the Liverpool bubble.
Salah was thrust into the spotlight recently after an interview given to Spanish newspaper ‘AS’ in which he was rather typically asked for his thoughts on Real Madrid and Barcelona and voiced his dissatisfaction at being overlooked for the Liverpool captaincy. The Spanish media certainly still believe that the very best players in the world invariably end up at either club. Putting to one side the fact that Salah would arguably be taking a step down by departing Anfield for the Camp Nou or the Santiago Bernabéu, there have been murmurs that the club should cash in on him given the fact he is 28 and his contact is running down in terms of value.
Perception or not, it can be said that Salah is not as highly thought of as Mane, or arguably Roberto Firmino, by Liverpool fans or neutrals. The fact he scores a high number of simplistic goals and has been accused of greed in the past has, rightly or wrongly, at least painted him as the most disposable.
The greatest strength of Jurgen Klopp’s five year plan has been signing the right players at the right time and keeping those he wants. Salah remains crucial to Liverpool and any willingness to see him leave is only comparative to his team-mates, if there is any at all. Is that fair, though?
Firmino doesn’t have anywhere near the goalscoring record of Salah or Mane but is an incredible facilitator for both; his attitude and work-rate don’t go unnoticed. Mane’s dribbling ability is what makes the difference for him, because he has managed to keep up with Salah’s numbers for the most part of their shared time on Merseyside. Salah’s work perhaps doesn’t get seen as often, but like Ronaldo and Messi, he has developed into a scoring machine despite not playing centrally, let alone as a traditional ‘number 9’.
He has all the attributes for that position; ruthless finishing, timing and precision. Closer control and technique fall by the wayside somewhat in terms of recognition; he set the standard and made history in his first season, scoring 32 league goals, following initial questions after his move from Roma in 2017. An underwhelming spell at Chelsea set the tone for that reaction to his return to English football, and perhaps he has since become a victim of his own success. He has never quite hit the incredible standards he set himself in terms of goals, while also falling behind Mane in terms of being easy on the eye.
Yet, last Wednesday night’s 0-0 draw at Newcastle — the first goalless meeting between the two sides since 1974 — almost sums up Salah’s true importance. He has been held partly responsible for the second successive draw, which robbed Liverpool of the chance to end 2020 five points clear atop the Premier League, because he missed guilt-edged chances either side of half time at St James’ Park. The first saw him denied brilliantly by an in-form Karl Darlow, before he completely missed the target with his second after being played in by Firmino’s exquisite through ball. Both misses were uncharacteristic, but came after he was on the periphery for much of the game; he should have been and was expected to be the match-winner despite barely impacting most of the play, which shows his quality.
His cleverness when it comes to moving into space, dragging players out of position and linking play makes him arguably the most complete of the trio, too. Perception counts for a lot in modern football, but there is a lot swirling around Salah, regarding his attitude and quality, much of it unfair and untrue. He remains vital to the Liverpool cause, and although its all relative, perhaps he hasn’t been getting the respect he truly deserves.