How quickly we forget in football. How quickly the world turns, the landscape changes and the debate moves on. How quickly yesterday’s hero becomes tomorrow’s villain, and vice versa.
Mohamed Salah would certainly testify to that. It is not that long ago that we were asking, with some justification too, whether Liverpool’s Egyptian King was the world’s best player, but you’d do well to get that discussion started now. On Monday the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner is revealed in Paris, and it would be a surprise, to say the least, if Salah’s name was to feature, even in the top three.
Before then, of course, there is the small matter of Liverpool vs Manchester City on Sunday afternoon. And when Salah glances across the tunnel at Anfield, he will lock eyes, just for a moment, with the man who has stolen his thunder, who is threatening his records and who, barring a miracle, will be stealing his Golden Boot come May as well.
If that doesn’t get the fires burning, nothing will.
There is no doubt who the most talked-about player in the Premier League is right now. Erling Haaland’s form since arriving has been little short of remarkable and it is that, coupled with his own struggles, which has put Salah - and just about everyone else - firmly in the shade.Getty Images
City’s Norwegian superstar is scoring at a rate which means nothing is impossible, no record is safe. He’s scored in each of his last 11 games for his club, he’s got three hat-tricks, and with 15 goals in his first nine Premier League matches, he already looks uncatchable at the top of the scoring charts.
In fact, he is only eight behind the tally which won Salah (shared with Son Heung-min) the third of his cherished Golden Boot prizes back in May. The Egyptian’s record of 32 goals in a 38-game league season, achieved in 2017-18, already looks under serious threat, as indeed does the 34-goal record set by Alan Shearer and Andy Cole in a 42-game campaign, and Shearer’s total of five hat-tricks in a single season, set in 1995-96.
“He sets new standards,” said Jurgen Klopp on Friday, at a press conference in which he labelled Haaland “the best striker in the world.” The Liverpool boss knows that if his side are to get anything from this weekend’s game, they will need to do something no team has managed to do this season; keep Haaland and the rest of his support staff quiet. Bournemouth, at the Etihad in August, are the only club side to stop him scoring, and they lost 4-0 in any case.
Haaland has already scored at Anfield, doing so for Salzburg in a Champions League group match in 2019, four minutes after arriving as a second-half substitute.Getty Images
“He didn’t start because he was injured,” remembered Klopp on Friday. “But he came on and we were already thinking about him and how to shut him down…and he scored anyway!”
That’s Haaland, a player who can rip up even the best-laid plans. His combination of physical and technical qualities coupled, as Klopp pointed out, with elite-level movement and the hunger of a player who is convinced he is heading right to the top, make him a fearsome proposition, especially for a side lacking form and confidence, who have conceded the first goal in 14 of their last 20 matches, as Liverpool have. Giving any team a goal-start is unwise, giving Haaland’s City one is tantamount to suicide.
Encouragement can at least be found in the Reds’ last outing, a 7-1 slapping of Rangers on Wednesday night which was significant not just for its scoreline, but for the sight of Salah doing what he has not done for a while, ripping a defence apart on his own and offering a timely reminder of his jaw-dropping, game-changing class.
At Ibrox, he needed only six minutes and 12 seconds to record the fastest hat-trick in Champions League history and the manner of his goals, left-foot finishes of instinctive, unerring quality, suggests that, after a run of six goals in 31 appearances, reports of his demise were at best exaggerated, and at worst downright stupid.Getty Images
Salah, let’s not forget, was doing in 2021 what Haaland is doing in 2022. This time last year, he was in the midst of a 10-game scoring run for Liverpool, a run which featured a hat-trick at Old Trafford, braces at Porto and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and brilliant, individual goals against City and Watford that made a mockery of his seventh-placed finish in the Ballon d’Or rankings.
“Come on, who is better than him?” asked Klopp exactly 12 months ago, after Salah had waltzed through Watford’s defence like a bearded ballerina. “We don’t have to talk about what Messi and Ronaldo have done for world football and their dominance but, right now, he is the best.”
The question now is whether he can reach those levels again. 2022 has not been the kindest of years so far, bringing Afcon and World Cup heartache with Egypt, and Premier League and Champions League disappointment with Liverpool. Salah got the new contract he craved at Anfield, but even he would admit his form has been scratchy for much of the year.
Understandable, really, given the standards he has set and the sheer volume of football he has played. He has made more than 50 appearances in four of his five full seasons at Liverpool (and 48 in the other) and already this season, he is one of only four players to have featured in all of the Reds’ 13 games.
His consistency - at least 23 goals each season, and 30+ in three of them - has been staggering, era-defining at Anfield, and it is easy to forget that as we rush to find the new star, appoint the new king and chase the new story. To pump up one set of tyres, we do not need to deflate another.Getty Images
Haaland’s arrival, clearly, has shifted the Premier League scenery. It’s early days still but he - and City - look capable of dominating English football for as long as they want. Even Klopp admitted this week that it was “not possible” for Liverpool to compete on a level playing field with Pep Guardiola’s side. “They can do what they want financially,” said the Reds boss. “Some other clubs have ceilings.”
Salah has helped Liverpool smash through those ceilings in recent years, of course. He’s already won every club trophy possible at Anfield, and but for the finest of margins we’d be talking about a triple Premier League champion and a three-time Champions League winner as well.
At 30, and having penned a new three-year contract in July, this brilliant, relentless Egyptian clearly has plenty more chapters left to write.
Klopp will hope he can start his latest one on Sunday. The big stage, after all, has always suited him.