Liver­pool’s $63m wing wizard has been quick off the mark at An­field, but what would you ex­pect from a player with the pace to trou­ble Usain Bolt and a touch to ri­val Lionel Messi?

Australian Four Four Two - - FEATURES - Words Al­i­son Rat­cliffe

“For years you’ve been tak­ing the piss out of me about these com­por­ta­menti giusti,” Lu­ciano Spal­letti told the press, quite dead­pan, af­ter Roma’s 5-0 rout of Palermo in Fe­bru­ary 2016. Com­por­ta­menti giusti – ‘the right be­hav­iour’ – is a Spal­letti catch­phrase dat­ing from his first stint with the Gial­lorossi in 2005. “This,” he said, point­ing his thumb back over his shoul­der, “is the right way to be­have.” His hand wheeled for­ward into a jab­bing in­dex fin­ger, ac­com­pa­nied by a tone and stare to make most grown-ups regress to six-year-olds squirm­ing be­hind their old wooden desks. Spal­letti’s les­son was a re-run of the one he had just given in the Roma dress­ing room. He moved his chair out of the way and played a video clip on the huge tele­vi­sion screen be­hind him, us­ing a laser pointer to pick out Mo­hamed Salah. “We were in the 30th minute of the sec­ond half, at 4-0, and he had al­ready scored two goals, one of them a stun­ner from the by-line. And I must re­it­er­ate – it wasn’t a fluke, it was a de­lib­er­ate shot. He could have taken the glory for him­self and the 10 out of 10s in the pa­pers. In­stead, he made that run.” The video showed Roma los­ing the ball in the fi­nal third. Salah set off as if stung, eat­ing up the Palermo player’s 10-yard head start and help­ing Roma’s rear­guard to shep­herd the ball to safety from their six-yard box, be­fore re­turn­ing up­field to join the for­ward line. Spal­letti called it an act “crazy in its beauty” and scolded the jour­nal­ists for get­ting side­tracked by Salah’s goal. Quite. How friv­o­lous of them to get dis­tracted by a man curl­ing the ball into the net from the by-line, just out­side the six-yard box with his back to goal – with­out even tak­ing a touch first – af­ter an evis­cer­at­ing Roma counter-at­tack. Salah’s im­pact in Serie A with Fiorentina and then Roma was so im­me­di­ate that La Gazzetta dello Sport said: “It’s now rea­son­able

to ask why Jose Mour­inho (of all man­agers) played him so lit­tle and why he al­lowed him to leave.” Af­ter Fiorentina res­cued Salah from Chelsea with a loan move in Fe­bru­ary 2015, they were taken aback. “Salah? We knew what his at­tributes were, but frankly we didn’t re­alise he could be so de­ci­sive,” said man­ager Vin­cenzo Mon­tella af­ter the Egyp­tian had made five ap­pear­ances. “We knew he was one of the fastest play­ers with the ball at his feet, but per­haps only Lionel Messi is faster than him.” Former Italy and West Ham United for­ward Alessan­dro Dia­manti was more pithy: “I’ve played with fast play­ers be­fore. But he’s fast, tech­ni­cal and he scores goals.” Af­ter half a sea­son, Salah moved to Rudi Gar­cia’s Roma, ini­tially on loan. He con­tin­ued to im­press. But when the ob­ses­sive Spal­letti re­placed Gar­cia as Roma’s man­ager in Jan­uary 2016, bring­ing his mania for repet­i­tive train­ing rou­tines for each unit within the team, Salah be­came less a pleas­ant sur­prise and more the kind of player who might win a side the ti­tle. Ul­ti­mately, Roma fin­ished four points be­hind the all-con­quer­ing Ju­ven­tus last sea­son, but they scored 90 goals to the Old Lady’s 77 (or Liver­pool’s 78) – record­ing the club’s best-ever points and goals tally. If you bun­dle goals and as­sists to­gether as goal ‘con­tri­bu­tions’, Salah made nine in 16 league matches for Fiorentina and five in 15 for Roma un­der Gar­cia, ris­ing to a scarcely cred­i­ble 42 in 50 un­der Spal­letti. Last sea­son he con­trib­uted to a goal ev­ery 94 min­utes – more of­ten than any Liver­pool player, Philippe Coutinho in­cluded. Salah found the back of the net 35 times in only 71 Serie A starts. At the start of last sea­son, Spal­letti ad­min­is­tered a lit­tle re­me­dial crit­i­cism, in­sist­ing he ex­pected Salah to beat his man at least twice. By the time Roma had stuffed Chievo 5-3 away in May with a brace from Salah, Spal­letti was call­ing him “ex­traor­di­nary. Now that he’s con­fi­dent he can play be­tween the lines, who can catch him? You’d need a mo­tor­bike. He has to un­der­stand when to let the ball go”. Like many over­seas play­ers, Salah has said he found Serie A a tac­ti­cal ed­u­ca­tion. Never a tac­ti­cal stick-in-the-mud, Spal­letti was the ideal in­struc­tor for a crash course, send­ing the Gial­lorossi out in an ar­ray of 4-3-3s, 4-2-3-1s and 3-4-1-2s. Salah mostly op­er­ated on the right side of an at­tack­ing tri­dent, but on oc­ca­sion played as sec­ond striker to Edin Dzeko, or right-lean­ing tre­quartista in a cosy tri­an­gle just be­hind Dzeko and ahead of Radja Naing­golan. He has also had a few run-outs on the left flank. With Egypt, where his team-mates are per­haps not quite as gifted as him, Salah’s been more of a No.10. Jur­gen Klopp has sug­gested that his Liver­pool side will need to be tac­ti­cal chameleons in 2017-18. Dis­cussing the 4-2-3-1 of his first sea­son in charge (and beloved of his Borus­sia Dort­mund) and the 4-3-3s and 4-5-1s of the last cam­paign, the German boss sug­gested any or all might come in handy. Re­gard­less of the finer de­tails, Salah’s shtick is to cut in from the right on his left foot. He heads for the penalty area as soon and as fast as pos­si­ble. The clas­sic Salah goal in­volves spring­ing the off­side line with his pace, leav­ing him all alone in front of a ter­ror-stricken goal­keeper, who is by­passed with a non­cha­lant side-foot from eight yards. His sec­ond strike in Roma’s March vic­tory over Fiorentina last year is a clas­sic ex­am­ple – even Salah’s former club couldn’t stop it. Salah’s Spal­letti-era strikes of­ten re­sulted from quick-fire pass­ing tri­an­gles al­most un­der the op­po­si­tion goal­keeper’s nose, as he be­came truly integrated into the team – a fo­cal point even, rather than just a sling­shot – and sup­ported cen­tre-for­ward Dzeko in his mis­sion to at­tack the first ball. Salah’s poach­ing is sur­pris­ingly sharp for a winger, thanks to his ex­cep­tional an­tic­i­pa­tion: you’ll of­ten see him hoover up a re­bound or loose ball in­side the six-yard box, while the in­stinct that saw him fol­low up Roberto Firmino’s lob against Wat­ford in Au­gust is typ­i­cal. Some­times the very threat of his fast feet and think­ing in the box is enough to cause de­fen­sive melt­down, as when the usu­ally stately

Jan Ver­tonghen col­lapsed like a new­born foal, with Salah breath­ing down his neck, in Fiorentina’s Europa League vic­tory over Tot­ten­ham in Fe­bru­ary 2015. The Egyp­tian fin­ished with a char­ac­ter­is­tic zip­ping eight-yard fut­sal-es­que toe-poke. Salah is all about hom­ing in on the six-yard box, hence his crack shot-con­ver­sion rate of 19.3 per cent in Serie A, which is bet­ter than Harry Kane’s over his Pre­mier League ca­reer and would put Salah in the top five per cent of for­wards in the Pre­mier League over the past six sea­sons. The fact he re­mains calm and lu­cid in­side the box af­ter his stren­u­ous sprint­ing helps, too. Salah’s as­sists tend to come from very sim­i­lar game sit­u­a­tions to his goals, as well as from cut­backs af­ter he has reached the by-line close to goal. Prior to that acutely an­gled goal against Palermo, he had in­tended to square the ball for Dzeko but soon changed his mind af­ter the keeper came rac­ing out. Dzeko, a ‘bomber’ in Ital­ian foot­ball par­lance, was roy­ally served though, scor­ing seven of the 22 chances Salah cre­ated for him in 2016-17. The duo proved the sec­ond-most pro­lific in Europe af­ter Dort­mund’s Ous­mane Dem­bele and Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang. The prospects are ap­petis­ing for Firmino, or per­haps Divock Origi. That does not mean the Egyp­tian’s tool­kit is lack­ing a long-range screamer (search YouTube for the one against Sas­suolo last year) or an An­dres Ini­esta-style pass, like the one for Diego Perotti that bi­sected Bologna in April, tee­ing up Dzeko for the third in a 3-0 win. Per­haps de­vel­op­ing these al­ter­na­tive routes to goal will be the key to mak­ing Salah world-class, and no doubt to ex­tend­ing his ca­reer. That was Roma’s sec­ond 3-0 de­feat of Bologna in 2016-17. The pre­vi­ous one in Novem­ber fea­tured Salah’s first ever hat-trick, with Ital­ian daily La Repub­blica la­belling the wide­man “pos­sessed” and “un­touch­able… ev­ery time the ball ar­rived at his feet it was trou­ble for [Roberto] Don­adoni’s team who had no idea how to stop him”. Salah hit a sprint speed of 33.89 kilo­me­tres per hour dur­ing that match; Usain Bolt av­er­aged 37.58kph in his 2009 world-record run. A beIN Sports re­port has pegged Salah as a 10-sec­ond 100 me­tre run­ner based on a 70m sprint he did against Fiorentina last sea­son. This ridicu­lous speed un­der­pins the em­blem­atic goal of Salah’s ca­reer to date, for Fiorentina at the Ju­ven­tus Sta­dium in the 2015 Coppa Italia semi-fi­nal. Salah reads Si­mone Pepe’s cor­ner for Juve be­fore it even drops: it’s go­ing to be cleared. He darts off from in­side the Fiorentina box. As the ball falls to a free Vi­ola player on the edge of the penalty area he’s ac­cel­er­at­ing, but his team-mate’s first-time lob falls just be­hind him. He checks and nudges it for­ward with his heel. By the cen­tre cir­cle he is fully ex­tended. Si­mone Padoin, Juve’s last man, is still six yards ahead but Salah knocks the ball through his legs, hur­tles into the box and blasts it into the top right cor­ner. Mon­tella joked the goal was a train­ing-ground move. Fiorentina’s sport­ing di­rec­tor, Daniele Prade, called it “a crazy goal… the kind of thing you do when you are a kid.” Lovestruck Vi­ola sup­port­ers carved a heart into Salah’s front door, which, since it was at­tached to a his­toric palazzo close to Florence’s old bridge, caused a mi­nor im­broglio. A blip, in fact, among the far graver hard­ships Salah has faced. As a dar­ling of the Is­lamic world play­ing in the west, the Egyp­tian is for­ever dodg­ing largely unasked-for flak from both sides. A del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion dur­ing his time at Basel – when he avoided shak­ing hands with Is­raeli Cham­pi­ons League op­po­nents Mac­cabi Tel Aviv, fi­nally of­fer­ing fist bumps – fol­lowed him to Rome. A lo­cal Jewish leader ob­jected to Roma sign­ing a player he termed “an an­ti­semite”. The winger has al­ways strongly de­nied mak­ing anti-Is­rael state­ments that had been at­trib­uted to him. When Salah was pre­sented with the Swiss League’s Player of the Year tro­phy for 2012-13, the fe­male host of­fered him the stan­dard con­ti­nen­tal kiss on the cheeks, caus­ing big con­tro­versy among his Mus­lim fans. Salah pointed out his ev­i­dent em­bar­rass­ment in the mo­ment and said that the re­ac­tion had spoiled his joy at the award. Lit­tle did he know that three years later he would be em­broiled in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions be­tween Italy and Egypt. In Fe­bru­ary 2016 a young Ital­ian, Gi­ulio Re­geni, was tor­tured to death in Egypt, with Europe blam­ing the Egyp­tian po­lice and the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment blam­ing the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood. Roma took part in a cam­paign to un­furl ban­ners de­mand­ing “the truth for Gi­ulio” in a game against Napoli on April 25, 2016. This put Salah in a spot. He was the newly ap­pointed am­bas­sador for the Egyp­tian tourism sec­tor, with a se­ries of ads sched­uled for film­ing at Roma’s train­ing ground. Arab me­dia re­ported that he wanted to leave Roma, but Salah’s lawyer de­nied it and the player re­sponded with an as­sist in the match in ques­tion. The ten­sions be­tween Ro­man ul­tras are barely less fraught than those be­tween east and west. Af­ter the Rome derby in May 2017, Lazio ul­tras hung dummies from a bridge by the Colos­seum. The man­nequins were wear­ing Roma shirts bear­ing the names of Salah, Naing­golan and Daniele De Rossi un­der a ban­ner read­ing, “Some po­lite ad­vice… Sleep with the light on!” It was heavy stuff for a pri­vate and de­vout man who gives few in­ter­views, de­spite hav­ing good English and Ital­ian. Af­ter scor­ing,

Salah gen­er­ally lim­its his cel­e­bra­tions to a few hugs and a prayer. If you saw him tear half his kit off cel­e­brat­ing his Fiorentina strike against Spurs, it’s be­cause he felt he had a point to prove in England, which surely bodes well for Liver­pool. Salah is no cold fish, though. He will hap­pily go nuts for a team-mate’s goal and proved pop­u­lar at Roma, mak­ing friends with Naing­golan and Francesco Totti, who re­galed him with his fa­mous jokes in Ro­man di­alect. He was also seen pa­tiently sign­ing au­to­graphs for a throng of fans who spot­ted him leav­ing a mosque in the cap­i­tal af­ter join­ing Roma. Mon­tella once talked of the “rou­tine, calm way in which [Salah] meets ev­ery challenge”. When the wide­man re­ceived a barrage of so­cial me­dia-or­ches­trated whistling on his re­turn to Fiorentina with Roma (the Vi­ola fans al­lege he had strung the club along be­fore mov­ing on), he scored af­ter six min­utes. Af­ter his ef­figy was hung out­side the Colos­seum, he made two and scored two in his next three games. Salah has also en­dured lay­offs, in­jur­ing the same an­kle in both sea­sons at Roma. The sec­ond ab­sence bled into his time away at the Africa Cup of Na­tions. So when you see him among the top 12 goalscor­ers in Serie A for 2016-17, or the top two as­sist-mak­ers, re­mem­ber he missed six games. Napoli’s Jose Calle­jon, with one more as­sist for the sea­son, missed just the one. Salah’s com­pa­triot, the Pre­mier League vet­eran and now Egyp­tian Pre­mier League coach Mido, has raved about Salah but says he will need to learn Klopp’s press­ing game. The tac­tic isn’t en­tirely for­eign to Salah: Roma did adopt a high press against Napoli last Oc­to­ber, which saw the winger pinch the ball off Kali­dou Koulibaly on the de­fender’s own goal-line and set up Dzeko to score in a 3-1 vic­tory. In any case, Salah’s fig­ures for tack­les and in­ter­cep­tions are slightly higher than Sa­dio Mané’s. And Salah wipes the floor with Mané when it comes to so­cial me­dia. He has be­come an Arab su­per­star with in ex­cess of 10 mil­lion fol­low­ers, and has been Pepsi’s brand am­bas­sador for the Middle East and North Africa. When Roma vis­ited Dubai in the sum­mer of 2016, more fans showed up for Salah than for Totti – an un­heard-of sce­nario in the an­nals of the Gial­lorossi. Most Liver­pool fans will be more con­cerned with how Klopp ar­ranges his at­tack­ing op­tions than how their mar­ket­ing and me­dia di­rec­tor Markus Bre­glec con­jures Instagram fol­low­ers. How­ever, the per­ti­nent ques­tion might not be where or with whom to play the Egyp­tian, but what to do if he is ever unavail­able. Last sea­son, a jour­nal­ist asked Spal­letti how he would deal with Salah’s ab­sence dur­ing the Africa Cup of Na­tions. He quipped: “I will have to buy some­one just like him.”

Right Salah scores in the sea­son-opener at Wat­ford Be­low right Japester Totti tells the winger an­other zinger

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