His departure rescued Roma. His arrival revitalised Liverpool. When the two clubs meet over two legs in the Champions League semi-finals, the matches will also serve as a celebration of Mohamed Salah, a player who means more to Roma and Liverpool than they could ever have imagined.
The Egypt winger left Roma for Liverpool in June last year for €39 million (£34.3m). In an off-season when the Premier League spent record sums and Neymar would soon go on to change the sport’s financial landscape by joining Paris Saint-Germain for €222m, Salah’s transfer wasn’t unnoticed but was hardly agenda-setting.
It has proved a significant piece of business. For Roma, it helped balance the club’s books, erasing a big chunk of its deficit at a time when the Italian side werefacing potential financial fair-play penalties from Uefa.
“Anyone who understands a bit of this business knows that that’s like having a sword pointed at your neck,” said Ramon Rodriguez, Roma’s director of sport and essentially their mastermind in the transfer market.
Selling Salah was a wrench. He combined for 26 goals (scored 15, set up 11) in Serie A in the final season of his 18 months in the Italian capital, second only to Jose Callejon, of Napoli. He had quickly become a fans’ favourite. The then-Roma coach, Luciano Spalletti, had helped develop Salah’s all-around game so he was more than just a speedy winger, but an efficient and creative one, too.
As it turned out, £34.3m was a bargain. On Sunday, Salah collected Englanish football’s Player of the Year award, which is voted by his fellow professionals, after a stunning first season at Liverpool in which he has scored 41 goals in all competitions. He hasn’t failed to score in 2018 in a home league game at Anfield, where supporters idolise him and serenade him with songs.
That’s even more the case in his home country, where he is regarded as a national hero by football-crazed Egyptian fans and murals of him adorn walls in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has run out of superlatives to describe Salah, but deserves credit for finding a way to get the best out of him.
Starting matches as virtually a right winger, Salah regularly drifts inside and finds himself playing as the central striker, with Roberto Firmino –nominally Liverpool’s centre forward – dropping deeper to link up play and create space.
His trademark finish for much of the season saw him cut inside and curl a shot into the far corner. He has developed another in recent weeks, the cheeky dink over the goalkeeper following an angled run into the penalty box. He did just that at Etihad Stadium to score the goal against Manchester City that all but sealed Liverpool’s place in the Champions League semifinals.
Fate ensured Roma would be Salah’s next opponent in the competition.
The Italian side, now under coach Eusebio Di Francesco, also somehow managed to prosper without Salah, getting to the last four of Europe’s top competition for the first time since reaching the final in 1984. The opponent that year: Liverpool.
Di Francesco has tried several players in Salah’s role as an attacking winger on the right, with varying degrees of success: Gregoire Defrel, Stephan el Shaarawy, Gerson, Patrik Schick, Diego Perotti, Alessandro Florenzi and even Radja Nainggolan.
However, it is 20-year-old Cengiz Under who is proving a revelation in that role in the second half of his first season at the club.
Under, pictured, struggled initially after his move from Istanbul-based side Basaksehir, and was not involved in any goals in his first 14 matches with Roma. Yet he scored six goals in February and March, and returned from injury by coming off the bench in the second leg of the quarter-finals against Barcelona and delivering the corner that set up Kostas Manolas’ goal to seal a 3-0 win and historic comeback from 4-1 down in the first leg.
“Imagine where Roma would be if they still had Salah,” Klopp recently said. Maybe in financial chaos and with Uefa-imposed limits on their wage bill, transfer spending and squad size in the Champions League.
Salah now is potentially worth four times more than Liverpool bought him for. He is regularly linked with a move to Real Madrid, but he always dreamed of playing for Liverpool as a child.
He remembers playing as Liverpool on the Fifa video game as an 18-year-old, when he was with El Mokawloon in the Egyptian league.
Eight years later, he could soon be in the Champions League final with them – for real. Unless his former club can hatch a plan to stop him.