KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Mohamed Salah has been voted Footballer of the Year in England, he has been voted Players’ Player of the Year in the Premier League and his goals have helped fire Liverpool to the final of the Champions League for the first time in 11 years.
All he has to do now is take a starring role for Egypt at the World Cup finals in Russia next month and he will offer the first serious challenge in tears to the dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the FIFA Best Player, France Football’s Ballon d’Or and World Soccer magazine’s World Player awards.
No-one who has seen the transformation of the player since his early stumbles at Chelsea will doubt his potential to achieve just that.
Salah joined Chelsea in January 2014 for £11m from Basel. Chelsea had been impressed not so much by the 10 goals he had scored in 47 games for Basel but by the two he had struck in two Champions League games against Chelsea when the Swiss outsiders won both home and away. But perhaps they signed him without thinking the deal through.
Of course Salah could hardly expect to step straight into the first team.
Chelsea were over-subscribed with talent. He was not alone on being mainly a reserve. Also on Chelsea’s books that season were Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Andre Schurrle. Along with Salah they made a mere 23 starts between them.
Salah made the first of his 10 appearances in February as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Newcastle and the first of his two goals came the following month in a 6-0 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, again as a substitute.
Already, however, his future in English football was in doubt. He found he was liable for military service back in Egypt after his application for a education scheme was rejected.
It took a high level meeting involving the then Egyptian prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab, the Minister of Sport and national manager Shawky Gharib to clear Salah for a return to Stamford Bridge for the 2014-15 campaign.
The first half of the season brought only four starts and four substitute appearances and not one goal in four competitions. Salah was wasting away, not contributing significantly to a squad heading for the Premier title. In January 2015 he was loaned to Fiorentina.
Perhaps the main reason Salah’s Chelsea stint did not ‘work’ was simply because of the players with whom he was competing under a manager in Jose Mourinho always suspicious of attacking football.
Veteran England midfielder Frank Lampard, who spent five months with Salah at Stamford Bridge, has said he believed the Egyptian was overawed by the Premier League and by a Chelsea dressing room full of world famous players.
Thus Salah went off to Calcio with Fiorentina and then Roma in a sale which represented a £6.4m profit for Chelsea. Roma made an even greater profit two years later when they sold him back to England last summer, to Liverpool, for a club record €42m that could rise to €50m.
Manager Jurgen Klopp did not think that Salah had anything to prove after his disappointing time at Chelsea. Klopp said: “He was a very young player in a very strong team and didn’t come through. That often happens. A similar player is Kevin De Bruyne and he is not doing too badly now.
“It’s only that Chelsea already had a fantastic offensive team. Nobody is to blame and for sure not Mo. He has improved a lot, especially physically-wise. I don’t think he had to prove something and I don’t think he has seen it like that.”
To assure Salah of his first-team status he was assigned the No11 shirt previously worn by Roberto Firmino who switched to No9.
He justified Klopp’s faith right from the start with a debut goal against Watford on the opening day of the season and then an important first goal at Anfield in the Champions League play-off defeat of Hoffenheim. Three days later, Salah scored and provided an assist in a 4-0 win over Arsenal.
That impressive start earned Salah the Player of the Month award from Liverpool supporters and both player and club have never looked back.
On November 29 Salah took over at the top of the Premier League goal-scoring charts by scoring twice after coming on as a substitute away at Stoke City in a 3-0 win. Three weeks later his goal in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth saw Liverpool become the first team in Premier League history to win four consecutive away league matches by a margin of at least three goals.
In the process, he also became the joint-second fastest player to reach 20 goals for Liverpool on his 26th appearance, behind only George Allan who reached the milestone in 19 appearances all the way back in 1895.
When Salah scored four goals in a 5-0 win over Watford – his first hat-trick for Liverpool – he broke a record of scoring 36 times in his debut season for Liverpool.
Salah’s overall total of 43 goals in all competitions – so far! – is already the most in a single season by a Liverpool player in the Premier League era, beating Robbie Fowler’s 36 in 1995-96. He has also broken Fernando Torres’ record of 33 goals making him the Liverpool player with the most goals in a debut season and snatched away Didier Drogba’s status as the league’s record African marksman in a single season.
Looking back now, Salah has said: “In Chelsea I didn’t play, so I didn’t have my chances but I said to all my friends that I wanted to come back. I like the Premier League a lot. I feel it has my style of football.
“Ever since Day One I have felt happy here at Liverpool. The manager [Klopp] changed something in me. Now I play closer to the goal than in any club before. If you look at me now and five years ago, everything has changed – mentally, physically… everything.”
But how he may compare with Ronaldo and Messi will depend largely on events in Russia next month.