There are fears in Egypt of another disappointing international tournament for Mohamed Salah, and given how important he is for his country, that would mean failure for the Pharaohs.
If there is to be a chance of adding to the record seven African Cup of Nations titles, then the national team need to get the best out of the red-hot Liverpool star.
Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Egypt’s appearance in the competition was overshadowed by the shoulder injury that Salah picked up in the final of the UEFA Champions League against Real Madrid just weeks earlier. The question as to how fit he was followed the team all around the tournament.
I attended a St. Petersburg pre-match press conference and the Russian players grew increasingly exasperated before their clash with the North Africans as they had to field question after question on Salah. Egypt fans will be hoping that his contract negotiation with Liverpool does not turn into another cloud.
It is becoming a bigger and bigger story, though it is unlikely to have been the reason for Egypt losing 1-0 to Nigeria in the opening game of AFCON 2021 on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old was a peripheral figure and could do little given the service, or the lack of it, he received from his teammates. Nigeria worked to cut off the supply from midfield and it was an effective tactic, as the Super Eagles coach Augustine Eguavoen explained after the game. “I’d like to congratulate my players. We had respect for Egypt and we just played our game,” he said. “Egypt only played on giving Salah spaces to run. It’s their only play, so we just had to keep the ball away from him.”
They did just that, and it now presents a headache for Egypt coach Carlos Queiroz. A win against Guinea-Bissau on Saturday is now not only necessary to get some points on the board, but a good performance is also needed to help fans forget the display against Nigeria in Garoua. Queiroz also needs to get his star shining. There is not yet a crisis — with the top two from each of the six-team groups going through as well as the four best-performing third-placed teams — but there has to be improvement.
The ideal situation would see Salah banging in a couple of goals and breaking a barren run for his country that has now reached six games.
That would be huge news back in Liverpool, where Salah’s contract situation has become the talk of the city. His current deal expires in the summer of 2023. It means that the player will be able to start talking to other teams next January and move for nothing a few months later. But Salah has indicated that he wants to stay at the six-time champions and has put the ball in the club’s court.
“I know Mo wants to stay. We want Mo to stay,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp said on Wednesday. “These things take time, but I think all of it is in a good place. I’m very positive about it. But as long as it is not done, we can’t say anything about it. Good conversations — that’s what I can say.”
A day later, Liverpool’s resolve to keep Salah surely strengthened as they looked short of firepower in a 0-0 draw against a 10-man Arsenal. The English papers were quick to point out the problem.
“Liverpool receive warning over life without Mo Salah and Sadio Mane in Arsenal draw,” was the Daily Mirror’s headline — just one of many pointing out that the Reds need the Egyptian.
Not only has he been consistently excellent since arriving in 2017, Salah has climbed to even greater heights in England this season, with 23 goals in 26 games.
After the stalemate, leading UK pundit and former Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher told the club to hasten the signing of a new contract for the Egyptian star. “I would love this deal to be done as quickly as possible,” he said on television, adding that Salah has provided incredible value for money in his five years so far.
“I don’t think they (the club and owners) would be forgiven if Salah left this club in the summer or in 18 months’ time. He’s a Liverpool legend and one of the greatest players the club has ever had. Salah wants to be paid as well as any top player in the Premier League or world football, and why shouldn’t he? He deserves that — we’re talking about one of the best players in the world.”
Few Reds would disagree. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then fans at Anfield woke up on Friday morning even more in love with Salah than before. That love only extends so far, however, as supporters would be delighted if Egypt exit at the earliest stage so that Salah can return to England.
For the player himself, it may not be a bad thing for his club to be reminded of just how much he brings, but his imminent concern is Egypt recovering from a poor start and living up to their record as the most successful team in the tournament’s history. To do that, coach Queiroz and the rest of the Egyptian team need to get the best out of their talisman, starting on Saturday against Guinea-Bissau.
Both club and country have their own Salah questions to answer, and while Egypt’s is more pressing, Liverpool cannot afford to wait too much longer.