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2018 FIFA World Cup: Will Mohamed Salah rule in Russia?

A breakout season for Egypt's Mohamed Salah has been the fairy-tale story of the past season, but an injury threatens his participation in the World Cup

A 2017 photo of Egypt’s Mohamed Salah (left) in action against Cameroon during an African Cup of Nations match. Photo: AP
A 2017 photo of Egypt’s Mohamed Salah (left) in action against Cameroon during an African Cup of Nations match. Photo: AP

Mohamed Salah was in tears. His participation in Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid wasn’t supposed to end like this—a shoulder injury, searing pain, desperate sadness.

When Salah went down under Madrid defender Sergio Ramos’ heavy tackle in the 30th minute of the final on 26 May, a hush fell over the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine. When he was finally substituted a few minutes later, unable to carry on, there was a sense that the grand denouement to his spectacular season had been denied.

It has nevertheless been a wonderful year for Salah, one where comparisons with the godheads of modern football, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have seemed perfectly natural. Eleven months ago, when the man from Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, signed for Liverpool for a club record transfer from Roma of £36.9m or around Rs3.3 crore (rising to £43.9m with add-on clauses), many were left bemused.

His earlier stint in England’s Premier League, at Chelsea from 2013-15, had been a miss. Underused and criticized for his profligacy in front of goal, he was loaned out first to Fiorentina and then to Roma (the club made the move permanent in 2016) in the Serie A.

He rebuilt his reputation and career in Italy, scoring 43 goals across two-and-a-half seasons, before making the big money switch back to the Premier League with Liverpool in 2017. Yet, doubts remained. Could he cut it in England?

By the end of the 2017-18 season, he had scored a league-record 32 goals, with another 10 in the Champions League. After sweeping up every possible individual domestic accolade, the question now is different—will he win the Ballon d’Or for the best footballer in the world, breaking the duopoly of Messi and Ronaldo?

Just like them, he has become an emblematic player for club and country. Especially with Egypt, he is a totemic player, with an astounding scoring rate of 33 goals from 57 matches. It was his ice-cold stoppage time penalty in the final World Cup qualifying match against Congo, in October, which would ensure the Pharaohs’ return to the tournament after 28 years.

What makes the 25-year-old so special? Blessed with an extraordinary turn of speed and a wand of a left foot, Salah started out as a winger for his home-town club, El Mokawloon, in 2009. He moved to Switzerland’s FC Basel in 2012, and a couple of eye-catching performances in that year’s Champions League enticed Chelsea to take a punt on him.

These days, there’s much more to his game. At Roma, and especially at Liverpool, he has been converted into an out-and-out forward. Playing on the right side of a front three, Salah likes to cut in from the right on to his favoured left foot and shoot at goal.

Long regarded as a speed merchant, this season, his close control and dribbling has been mesmerizing. The sight of Salah cutting a swathe through a mass of defenders, often leaving them on their backs, before unleashing an arcing, bending shot into the far corner of the goal, or chipping the ball cheekily over an onrushing goalkeeper, has become the norm.

Not a week has gone by without either a sumptuous goal or a pinpoint assist. Some of the goals—like the one against Arsenal, where he raced the full length of the pitch to score, the looping shot against Everton in the snow, an exact reprise against Roma, the Messi-esque dribble and chip against Tottenham Hotspur, the bamboozling of five defenders against Watford, a sublime volley against Stoke City, or the ball-juggling dink against Porto—play out like an attacking masterclass. He has single-handedly destroyed opposing teams this season, from Spartak Moscow to Manchester City and his old club Roma, with a smile and sublime skills.

At Liverpool, he has struck up a partnership with fellow forwards Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, to form a devastatingly fluid attack that has scored 91 goals in all competitions. It has been bewitching to watch Salah taking his considerable skills to a different level.

The hallmark of manager Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool is the forceful will of the team and its sparkling interplay and devastating counter-attacks. Salah has been the greatest beneficiary of Liverpool’s hard-pressing game this season, one in which the players in red harass and harry opponents into ceding possession of the ball in their own half. Once the ball has been won, lightning-quick transitions and surging runs from players in midfield and full-back positions often overwhelm defences. In the middle of this choreographed chaos, Salah has flourished, scoring goals from everywhere, and laying on a sizeable number for his teammates.

At the time of his injury, it was feared that he would become one of the glaring misses of the World Cup. However, as he undergoes treatment in Sevilla, Egyptian officials are hopeful that Salah will be able to play in at least the third group game against Saudi Arabia on 25 June.

Egypt’s opponents in Group A are a tricky bunch—hosts Russia and a Uruguay side featuring star strikers Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.

Managed by Héctor Cúper, they boast of a stubborn defence and a quick counter-attack, where Salah plays on the right side of a front three, much like at Liverpool. Fitness and form willing, a determined Salah in the last 16 can cause any side problems.

Football fans can at least look forward to next season, hoping for similar exploits from Salah. In Liverpool and Cairo, he’s already a legend. If he manages to stay at this rarefied level over the next few seasons, the fairy tale will continue.

Even on the cruel night of 26 May, as Salah exited the field in tears, the travelling Liverpool faithful in the stands were singing, “Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing, Salah la la la la la laaah, the Egyptian king!"

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