Mohamed Salah could discover a cancer cure tomorrow and it wouldn’t seem implausible. The Egyptian’s debut season for Liverpool gets more surreal with every passing week.
At Anfield on Tuesday night, he created two and scored two against Roma, reaching 42 goals in all competitions this season and putting Liverpool in pole position for an improbable charge to the final of the Uefa Champions League.
Second-leg reversals of 5-2 first-leg victories do happen, of course, but the odds are good that Jürgen Klopp’s increasingly mercurial outfit will prevail on aggregate at the Stadio Olimpico in a fortnight.
And then, well, anything becomes possible, including, whisper it, the first Ballon d’Or award for an African footballer since George Weah bagged it back in 1995. A Salah triumph would also break the decade-long Leo Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo duo-poly on the prize, given every year to the world’s best footballer.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Salah and company could face Ronaldo and company in the final in Kiev, and the Portuguese superstar is now a seasoned expert at closing the deal. Nor are Bayern Munich, the alternative finalists if Liverpool go through, likely to follow the script of this crazy dream.
But it’s already an incredible story. And, even if the Egyptian does not conquer Europe, he has the chance to revive a passionate football nation’s prowess in Russia this summer. Given the wealth of talent that Egypt has produced over the past two decades, it is astonishing that this campaign will be their first appearance at the World Cup finals since 1990, when they exited at the group stage. The Pharaohs missed six successive tournaments.
Three successive Africa Cup of Nations titles — in 2006, 2008 and 2010 — made this long absence from the biggest stage something of a mystery, given that a long queue of less- powerful teams somehow qualified to represent Africa at the World Cup, only to fall at the group stage.
Then the stability and confidence of the Egyptian game was disrupted — first by the political upheaval of the Arab Spring (in which football supporters played a central role) and then by a wave of repression by the Abdel Fatah al-Sisi regime, and a violently suppressed stadium riot in Port Said in 2012, in which 74 fans were killed.
Now, with Salah front and centre, the Pharaohs are back. They took Nations Cup silver last year and boast an axis of rich experience in Mohamed Elneny, Ahmed Fathy, Ahmed Elmohamady and the ageless keeper, Essam El-Hadary, who holds 156 caps.
In Russia, the Pharaohs have drawn a tough but not forbiddingly tough group — it’s one they can legitimately hope to advance from, featuring the bound-to-be-nervous Russians, the always formidable Uruguayans and the unpredictable Saudi Arabians.
But Salah will not be thinking about Russia this week — he will be worrying about the possibility that those two late Roma goals will spike his magical season. Liverpool let their guard down in the closing stages and Roma netted twice to give themselves a slender chance of a second-leg escape act in Italy.
Klopp admitted he couldn’t have hoped for a more dynamic display from his team.
“It was the perfect performance for pretty much 80 minutes. We made defensively one mistake, then their penalty is not a penalty but that is the situation and now it is 5-2,” he said. “Of course, we would have been more happy with 5-0 or 5-1 but 5-2 is a fantastic result. We go there and try again. It is absolutely better than I thought before the game.”
Following Klopp’s game plan, Liverpool exploited Roma’s creaky defence as Salah and Mane ran them ragged with their pace and movement.
“We had all these runs behind, it changed the game completely and they couldn’t cope with that. We scored these goals and could have scored more,” Klopp said.
“That is all positive. At this moment it doesn’t feel all positive because they scored these two goals but tomorrow I will see the really good part of the game.”
Aside from Roma’s late double, the only problem for Klopp on a memorable evening was the injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that saw him carried off in the first half.
“Oxlade-Chamberlain is probably a really bad injury,” Klopp said. “That is bad news for us. The squad doesn’t get bigger at the moment so we need to be creative in the next few games.”
Although Liverpool fans will be dreaming of a final showdown with Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, their players are well aware that Roma staged a stunning fightback to eliminate Barcelona in the quarterfinals.
The Italians lost the first leg 4-1 but won 3-0 in Rome to go through on away goals.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson admitted there was frustration at letting Roma back into it and he warned his team-mates not to let down their guard in the return leg.
“It felt as though we were in full control but we basically gave them two goals. You can’t do that in the Champions League,” he said. “At the same time we played well, we will go there with a three-goal advantage.
“Overall we have got to stay positive. We knew it would not be easy here, we know it will not be easy there. It will be a challenge but one we will look forward to and one [when] we will hopefully finish them off.”