It was a celebration that spoke of relief as much as anything.
As Roberto Firmino fired home Liverpool’s winning goal against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night , as Anfield exploded, one TV camera caught the reaction of Mohamed Salah, sat on the Reds’ bench.
Up went his arms, down went his water bottle. Off went the conspiracy theorists, speculating across social media about the Egyptian’s happiness or otherwise. Did he look angry? Frustrated? Jealous even?
Salah is not usually sat down when Liverpool score a vital goal, of course, so perhaps the conjecture is to be expected, even if it is misplaced. Having feared he had thrown away two Champions League points for his team – his wayward pass had led to Kylian Mbappe’s out-of-the-blue equaliser for PSG – Salah’s relief is understandable. He’s bailed his side out plenty of times in the past 12 months, this time Firmino did it for him. Cheers, Bobby.
Maybe the wider issue surrounds Salah’s general form. As Liverpool march on,with six wins from six to start the new campaign , last season’s star man is still searching for his best. His performances thus far have seen flashes of class interspersed with moments of wastefulness, signs of frustration and, for now, a slowing of his manic goalscoring rate.
No shame in that, by the way. Maintaining the incredible standards of last term was always going to be a challenge this time around. Record-breaking seasons can be hard to follow, especially when the world and his wife is set up to stop you hurting them, and when you spent your summer months expending energy shaking off a shoulder injury to be fit for the World Cup, only to see your dream turn into a nightmare.
The bare statistics say that Salah has ‘only’ scored twice in six matches this season, while the eye test will tell you he has missed chances at Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Tottenham that he would have expected to bury, and that his touch and distribution has been sloppier than we are used to.
They will also have spotted, particularly at Wembley last weekend, the 26-year-old’s annoyance at misplaced passes, or even the reluctance of team-mates to play him in. Sadio Mane certainly had him throwing his shoulders back in frustration at Tottenham on more than one occasion.
And yet, a glance at last season offers some perspective. In Liverpool’s opening six games of 2017-18, Salah scored three times. His side, meanwhile, lost one of those games 5-0, and drew another of them 3-3.
It was not really until October that Salah’s scoring rate exploded. From the 7-0 win over Maribor on October 17 until the victory over Leicester on December 30, he netted 17 goals in 17 games. Prior to that, his rate was six in 12.
Crucially, Liverpool this season look less reliant on him. Mane has started the season well, while Firmino has been their match-winner in each of their last three games. Daniel Sturridge marked his first start for the club since last December with a goal against PSG, while new signing Xherdan Shaqiri is yet to be unleashed fully.
With that in mind, could Salah’s ‘dip in form’ actually be good news for Jurgen Klopp? His side are winning games narrowly right now – their last four have come via a one-goal margin – imagine what they’ll look like when their Egyptian King starts flying again?
The best teams do not rely on one man, and Liverpool are a case in point. Last season all of their front three struck 20 or more goals in all competitions. It would be a brave punter who backed against the same happening this time around. Sturridge, who has played just 93 minutes so far, has two to his name and will fancy his chances of at least reaching double figures. Given the positions he gets himself into, Naby Keita may feel similarly.
And what is often overlooked, in any case, is the fact that simply by being on the field, Salah is influencing matches in Liverpool’s favour. Against Leicester and Tottenham, the fear of leaving space in behind left Ben Chilwell and Danny Rose unsure whether to attack or to sit back, while at Crystal Palace Salah won a penalty, got Eagles defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka sent off and set up Mane for the clinching goal. He himself made the crucial breakthrough against both West Ham and Brighton.
He still contributes, and even in an average display against PSG his work-rate and persistence was admirable. He made as many key passes as anyone on the field, and won possession back for his team as many times as Mane, Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner or Trent Alexander-Arnold, all of whom were lauded afterwards. It is no coincidence that PSG’s weakest player was their left-back, Juan Bernat.
Those looking for signs of unrest can look elsewhere; all is well at Anfield, where he is valued, respected, loved.
Rather, the speculation should be about what is to come. Southampton, Chelsea, Chelsea again, Napoli and Manchester City lie in wait for Liverpool before next month’s international break. Big games, big challenges.
Big chances for Salah to play his way back towards top form. And if you’re doubting his ability to do so, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.