Mo Salah, during Liverpool's last game at the Emirates.ADAM DAVY / Reuters
Pep Guardiola says that Juanma Lillo has a gift for discovering hidden dimensions in the choreographic tangle that make up the 44 legs of footballers involved in a soccer match. "He sees things that nobody sees," says the Manchester City manager of his assistant field. A year ago, before joining the Premier's adventure, the Toulouse coach was asked about Mohamed Salah .
"If the opposite side leaves and there are spaces, Salah swells, " he explained. “They say it's fast. What you have is a wonderful sense of occupying space at the right time. Because he has previously known how to abandon it. There is the key. The key is to previously leave the place where you want to be better than the rival; deliberately leaving a gap unoccupied. Because as you are in a hurry to occupy it, you already place the opposite! That Salah does very well. And since you're late, you'd better leave him alone and don't get too close to him [to steal the ball] because as you get closer he erases you. And if you let it receive and there are spaces, it faces you and puts it two meters behind your back, it starts and you don't get it. It's very difficult to score because it has a lot of conceptual richness. ”
The first time Salah faced Madrid he was 23 years old. It was in the knockout stages of the 2016 Champions League. He played for Roma, asked for balls at his feet, and turned at an amazing speed to drive in the race, showing a wide repertoire of feints, feints and cuts. He started as a winger on the right, with a changed leg, and although Marcelo ignored him for a good part of the 180 minutes of the crossing, he could not overcome the obstacles he encountered later on. When he outwitted Ramos and Pepe, he came face to face with Keylor Navas exhausted. Five years later, Salah faces Madrid for the fourth time in the Champions League. This time, however, he dominates much more than dribbling.
With Roma he scored an average of one goal every three games and with Liverpool he scores one goal every two. Not because now he has more aim but because when he reaches the auction he does so with more time to decide. Salah went from unbalancing with driving to unbalancing and associating, two tools that allow him to reach the area with the least populated landscape of rivals.
If Mané climbs dragging markers, he takes ten steps back; if winger Alexander Arnold receives the ball, he pretends to go looking for the pass to the front and suddenly turns to attack the back of his marker because he knows that the ball will be thrown to him there. His range of deceptions is endless and Klopp has designed a catalog of plays for everyone – from goalkeeper Alisson to nine Firmino – to throw balls into vacant spaces that he makes in advance. Salah's matches are long journeys: from the wing to the box, from the box to the midfield, and from the middle to the band, periodically turning his neck to form a table with the position of his markers, measure distances and calculate times. He lives with a beard on his shoulders and lately he does so under the worst pressure a player can bear: that imposed on him by his own teammates.
Liverpool's dressing room has been tense with jealousy. Mané and Firmino lead the faction that observes Salah – the highest paid of the squad with more than 12 million euros per year – as a privileged person who takes advantage of the strenuous collective work that everyone does to recover the ball after the loss. Aware that it generates discomfort, Salah shows signs of boredom. Born into a wealthy family of jasmine exporters from the Nile Delta, at 28 years old, he does not seem willing to have a hard time. In England they point out that the interviews he has given to the As and Marca newspapers in recent months are one more indication that he is looking for a destination to sign the last great contract of his career. A British agent says that if Salah – who ends his relationship with Liverpool in 2023 – was not sold in 2020 it was because the pandemic depressed the market.
"You can't force people to stay," Klopp shrugged. weeks ago, on the question of whether Salah wanted to go to Spain.
The big clubs in Spain attract him just as they resist him. He played twice against Barça, twice against Atlético and three against Madrid in the Champions League and never scored a single goal or gave an assist. His first duel with Madrid ended with a grab from Ramos that resulted in a yellow card for the central defender. The last one ended with a key from Ramos that removed him from the final in Kiev after 30 minutes of play with a shoulder dislocation. Tonight in Valdebebas —without Ramos, on sick leave—, Mo Salah has before him several challenges in one.
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