Old Trafford stage set for Mohamed Salah to steal Cristiano Ronaldo’s crown

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Mohamed Salah has scored in a Liverpool record nine successive matches (Picture: Getty / Metro)

As Mohamed Salah took possession in his customary position on the right wing, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Lemar were faced with an unenviable problem.

Years of evidence told the Atletico Madrid duo to expect the Liverpool forward to cut inside on to his stronger left foot and look for a chance to unleash a typically fierce shot.

Easy to anticipate, harder to stop, as Salah’s speed and sudden movement, his ability to change direction, and then get a shot away while keeping his balance just as you are regaining your own makes putting defensive theory into practice complicated.

Salah has recently started scoring with his weaker right foot against Man City (Picutre: PA)

But there was a new problem. In his last two Premier League appearances, against Manchester City and Watford, Salah had picked up the ball in similar territory and yet chosen to go on the outside; wriggling and slaloming past multiple defenders before sticking the ball in the back of the net — with his weaker right foot. Now what should you do?

With defenders no longer sure whether ushering him towards or away from goal was the safer option, Salah reverted to type in Tuesday’s Champions League tie, stepped inside Carrasco and Lemar, plus a third challenge from Koke and fired into the bottom corner.

Geoffrey Kondogbia, perhaps even James Milner, may have got the final touch but it wasn’t their goal. It belonged to the man Jurgen Klopp believes is the best player in the world right now. A case few can argue, even if the Anfield moneymen are seemingly reluctant to pay Salah as such.

Cristiano Ronaldo has hit the ground running since his return to Manchester United (Picture: Getty)

On Sunday afternoon, Liverpool travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United and their five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.

Recently signed to a two-year contract on weekly wages Salah can, at the present moment, only dream of, the Portugal superstar will have to take that pay-cheque as consolation against the fact it is not him most viewers will be tuning into see.

On the night Salah was tormenting Atletico Madrid, Lionel Messi, the only player capable of matching and surpassing Ronaldo for the past decade and a half, was showing signs of his imperious best in Paris Saint-Germain’s come-from-behind win over RB Leipzig.

Like Ronaldo, Messi parlayed his titanic reputation into a big-money move in the summer but, like his great rival, Messi is into his mid-30s and coming to terms with the realisation that, while still capable of producing decent material for the highlights reel, the days of consistent, video-game production levels might be behind him.

The mantle of world’s greatest in the immediate aftermath of two of the best to ever do it is a hard role to fill.

Messi’s new club-mate Kylian Mbappe — a four-time French champion and World Cup winner, but still only 23 — and Erling Haaland, at 21, are the chosen coming men. Vinicius Junior (21), Pedri (18), Ansu Fati (18) and Phil Foden (21) might join them. Neymar, 30 next February, has long been seen as the bronze medallist of the Messi-Ronaldo era, albeit not in the finish-line freeze frame. In a different age, Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema might have been Ballon d’Or winners.

But why can’t Salah inherit the crown? The Egyptian is four months younger than Neymar and, having moved to elite level with Liverpool in 2017, is a relatively late developer.

Ronaldo, now 36, won his second Ballon d’Or at 32 as did Messi — now a well-used 34 and who nevertheless scored 30 La Liga goals last season.

If Salah’s age is a factor in Liverpool’s stance on his contract talks, there is ample evidence to say it shouldn’t be. Messi and Ronaldo performed at such a high level for so long it was inevitable the teams they played for at their peak were built around them, to accentuate their overwhelming strengths. And yet, increasingly, their current coaches have to construct their teams in a way that absorbs their weaknesses.

At PSG, Mauricio Pochettino ponders how to press high up the pitch when the focal point of his attack barely breaks into a trot when his team loses the ball. Faced with a similar dilemma with Ronaldo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — despite his claims to the contrary and yet more late heroics from his forward — might want to give Pochettino a call.

But Salah, as he always has been, remains the consummate team player. There is the odd icy stare from Sadio Mane when shots take precedence over passes but there is no debate over his ability or willingness to press the ball, or his wider role in the team. If he stays fit, there’s no reason why there should be doubts for two or three years yet.

And the signs are Salah will stay fit because the former Chelsea man has another underrated quality displayed by the two greats in their prime — he is always available. Since moving to Anfield the Kop’s talisman has missed just seven Premier League games. In the 153 he has played, he’s scored 102 goals. His seven in eight games this season is the best ratio since he came to the club. His current streak of scoring in nine consecutive games in all competitions is a club record. In short, Salah is not slowing down.

The debate about whether paying Salah ‘Messi and Ronaldo wages’ would damage Liverpool’s ability to compete is a fair one. It could affect dressing-room harmony, and the deal may become a millstone around the Anfield coffers in the way Messi’s contract helped cripple Barcelona’s finances. Salah shirts do not fly off the shelves in the same numbers as Messi and Ronaldo’s, so he is not an income generator in the same way as that untouchable two.

But in pure footballing terms it is hard not to agree with Klopp, Salah’s no doubt biased manager but the man who knows him best.

‘Come on, who is better than him?’ Klopp asked following the game at Watford which included a sublime assist for Mane as well the superlative individual goal.

‘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.’

Asked this week about Salah’s chances of winning the Ballon d’Or, Klopp said: ‘If it’s performances over the last two years, then he has a chance. Does he get now the recognition? Internally, he’s always got it. Externally, I don’t know. But that after the two goals, now people think all of a sudden he could be the best in the world is a bit strange. He’s scored goals like this before and performed for years on an incredibly high level.’

So now we’re all in on the secret Liverpool fans have known for years; Ronaldo might be thrilling Old Trafford again. But on Sunday, it’s likely he won’t be the best player on the pitch.


MORE : Thierry Henry argues why Mohamed Salah is not the world’s best player right now


MORE : Cristiano Ronaldo will be Man Utd’s ‘downfall’ as Gabby Agbonlahor urges Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to drop star

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