FootballPremier League

Mo Salah has his confidence back and that’s a scary prospect for Liverpool’s opponents

April 9, 2019

THE titanic triumph over Southampton brought with it so many reasons to celebrate for Liverpool. First and foremost, the three points – the victory, and a win that continued to give Liverpool the quality of the buzzing fly in the beer garden sun that just won’t be swatted away.

Eventually, maybe, hopefully, Manchester City just get fed up and go inside and play the quiz machine and leave The Reds to it. It was more than that though. It was a night loaded with flicks of the metaphoric two fingers, not least from Mo Salah.

As the Egyptian burst from the Liverpool half with the ball at this feet it would have been so easy for his brain to feel the noise. The noise of the occasion, the noise of the title race, the noise of those who have questioned and queried why he has not reproduced the numbers of a devastating first season at Anfield.

That noise had been reaching a crescendo of crap from some quarters as Salah’s goalless run stretched to eight games. Was he a one-season wonder? Had he been figured out? He’s clearly not as good as x, or y or z. All of this was pumped into the Liverpool consciousness day after day.

It might have been why so many of us screamed “PASS” as Salah closed down on the Southampton goal. Surely the wise thing to do was lay it off to Roberto Firmino. He looked better placed, and on the basis of how the match had unfolded up to that point, was in better form.

Salah, though, like the best goalscorers, was gloriously selfish in that moment. Gone was the noise and instead only the single thought: goal. And what a goal. So precise, so perfect and so crucial. Also his 21st of a season so often painted as a poor one for him, and his 50th league goal in a Liverpool shirt. In only 69 Premier League appearances.

Afterwards, Salah was all smiles; laughing, joking, even pretending to interview Jordan Henderson with a Sky Sports microphone and rinsing the captain for good measure. “I’m very happy to score a goal to help the team. That’s the most important thing for us,” Salah said post match.

“And also, I scored my first goal in nine games, he [points to Henderson] scores [his] first goal in 20 games, 30 games. So I’m happy to score.”

It might have been a joke about a team-mate but the gag was laced with a line that Salah has touched on before. The microscopic media takedown of his output has been more than a little over the top.

Right now, Salah has scored 18 Premier League goals this season – just one less than top scorer Sergio Aguero and one more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Harry Kane, and team-mate Sadio Mane.

It’s two more than Eden Hazard, and three more than Raheem Sterling. Ah yes, will come the return of service from the doubters, but what about last season? What about that level of performance? What about that context?

And that’s weird, isn’t it? That Salah has been spoken of negatively for not replicating one of the best outputs of a Liverpool goalscorer in the history of a club. An output that across Europe has only regularly been replicated by two of the most talented players the world has seen in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In fact, last season Messi was the only player from Europe's top five divisions to outscore Salah. And then by only a single goal. Wind back to the summer before that season started and many criticised the fee Liverpool paid Roma for Salah’s services, an initial £34million with add-ons to follow.

The easy line was that Salah couldn’t ‘cut it’ in the Premier League after an unsuccessful spell at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. Roma president James Pallotta even later claimed Liverpool owner John W. Henry was left "bitching" because he thought The Reds had coughed up too much money.

It’s safe to say no-one bitched after Salah scored 44 goals for Liverpool in all competitions in 2017/18 – a figure only Ian Rush (47 in in 1983/84) has ever scored more than in a single season for the Reds.

This was also, it’s worth remembering, Salah’s debut season in red. Even Rushie didn’t manage that. In fact, it took the club’s record goalscorer, who had cost a British record transfer fee for a teenager, 10 appearances before he finally found the back of the net. What would some of today’s media have made of that?

Replicating the personal heroics of last season was always going to be a big ask for Salah, but he can still hold his head up high about his contribution this season – with huge opportunity to write history still in front of him before boots are swapped for sandals for the summer.

This season, Salah has already been tackled more times than he was in the whole of the last campaign. He has clearly commanded closer attention on the pitch from defenders and off it from managers formulating plans to stop him.

He’s been fouled more, targeted more, handed some rough stuff. And yet still he is keeping pace with the Premier League’s elite goalscorers. All this isn’t to deny a dip, more to calmly contextualise. Salah undoubtedly heard the noise at times. He was taking extra touches, trying to make sure. And perhaps the personal targets within touching distance didn’t help.

Last season, he outstripped the goals he would be expected to score according to the analysts by some distance. This season he is merely meeting that bar. From outstanding to brilliant. It’s hardly a crisis, is it?

What thrills now though is the prospect of another level. Sadio Mane’s brilliance in front of goal in recent weeks has given him star billing. If Salah now plays with more confidence, more freedom, and finds the net more easily, what a horrifying prospect for any side trying to stop Liverpool. And a delightful one for any Red.

The buzzing fly might just get louder and more annoying.