When Mohamed Salah scores a goal, which happens quite often these days, he always kneels down and kisses the turf in prayerful thanks. So who’s he thinking about?
Doubtless his God. Almost certainly his family. But you never know, he might also be remembering when a Scotsman called James McCrae led his Egypt to their very first World Cup. Born in Bridge of Weir, McCrae played for Clyde prior to the First World War. He turned out for the Grenadier Guards team and guested for Rangers then resumed his career in England, representing six different clubs including Manchester United, before finishing up with Bully Wee. Managing the Egyptians at the 1934 World Cup in Italy, MacRae bowed out after the first round – no groups in those days – but a 4-2 defeat by Hungary doesn’t sound too shabby.
So maybe marvellous Mo the new Liverpool superstar is murmuring these words when his lips touch the pristine hybrid playing surfaces of the Prem: “Thank you so much, Jimmy, for our first World Cup. Now we are ready for our next great adventure.”
Far-fetched? Perhaps not. This is a player who scores four goals against Watford and, before he has collected the match ball, heads straight for the opposition goalie to apologise for his brilliance. Afterwards, “nicest guy in football” was a typical tweet.
Everyone wants a piece of Salah right now. Real Madrid and Barcelona will supposedly slug it out after the World Cup to attempt to lure him away from Anfield. You can understand a Scotsman, then, exploring the tenuous tartan connections beyond zipped Andy Robertson crosses for some of the new Kop idol’s 37 goals to date.
The total will keep on rising. He can’t stop scoring. All strikers when they’re hot can then cool off but, as much as you can say anything in football with surety, it seems highly unlikely that Salah will suddenly find himself unable to hit a pyramid with a khopesh (a type of sword used in Ancient Egypt; I looked it up on Wikipedia) or a camel’s bottom with the kind of long flutes popular back in 2000 BC.
On Tuesday there’s a pivotal, juddering epic of a game facing Salah and Liverpool when they host Manchester City in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals. There’s an epic within the epic as Salah will be up against his only real contender for England’s Player of the Year prizes in Kevin De Bruyne. And you could call this the battle of the Mourinho duds, the bold Jose having got rid of both when he managed Chelsea.
Bold in how he ceases relationships with players, less bold in his attacking stratagems. Mourinho has history of all-English clashes in this tournament – there was the “ghost goal” which once did for him at Anfield – and with Manchester United he would have hoped to be involved in the last eight this season, but a timid performance in the previous round put paid to that. Tuesday, and the return match, could be pivotal for him too. If these games are solid-gold classics and Liverpool and Man City continue to show themselves more deserving of Old Trafford’s “Attack, attack!” war-cry, then Mourinho’s Man U tenure will come under further scrutiny, not least if Salah and De Bruyne glisten.
Enough about the No-Longer-So-Special One, though, because Salah vs De Bruyne is a tantalising affair. For the first third of 2017-18 it seemed that the Belgian’s power-play from the midfield was going to sweep him to the individual honours. Since then I don’t think he’s tailed off, it’s just that Salah has got sensational. Whizz back over Salah’s 36 goals and there was little to suggest he was going to become the Premier League’s most irresistible performer. He started scoring for Liverpool right away but these were routine: tap-ins, sclaffs, deflections, none of a spectacular nature. At that point Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were starrier members of the front line, and Philippe Coutinho was the starriest of the lot.
But then it became apparent that Salah had been finessing a trademark finish. Well, you’d call it trademark if it wasn’t obviously a King Kenny rip-off. You just knew there was another clunky Caledonian reference-point coming along soon and here it is: Salah’s trick of cutting in from the right, jinking past a couple of opponents and using the third as a screen to whip the ball round and into the far corner with his left foot is pure Dalglish.
Salah debuted his special goal against Everton, scored one similar against Bournemouth, then repeated the trick against Arsenal. There was some delightful keepy-uppy before his strike against Porto and then came the headline: “Yes, Salah can do it on a cold Wednesday night in Stoke.” Fab Fours breaking up in Liverpool normally cause seismic shocks but when Coutinho finally left for Barcelona, the other three and Salah especially were playing with such freewheeling flair that the Brazilian hasn’t been missed.
Unlike Liverpool’s last superstar, Luis Suarez, who beyond Anfield was admired rather than loved, Salah doesn’t appear to have any demons. Attempting to find a flaw in his character is as tricky as spotting one in his game. He’s an impressive footballer and, arguably, an even more impressive man. Back home in Egypt he’s funding a new school. He’s paid for an ambulance service and hospital incubation units. He runs a charity and sends clothes. When the government urgently needed quick currency he donated £210,000.
It was Salah’s 95th-minute penalty against Congo which sent Egypt to the World Cup. He was offered a villa for scoring the goal but declined, saying: “Give the same amount of money to my village.” He won’t celebrate strikes if there’s been bad news at home such as a terrorist attack. He’s engaged politically and, asked for his favourite English word by Liverpool’s TV channel, offered: “Love.”
De Bruyne has been tremendous but all the love is surely coming Salah’s way when the top player awards are handed out. I’m sure he is aware of Dalglish’s great feats and will be suitably humbled by the comparison. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows about James McCrae as well.