Mohamed Salah: From Chelsea tormentor to Blues' big hope
Published on Mar 10, 2014 3:42 PM
With three minutes remaining of Chelsea's Champions League group-stage encounter in Basel last November, a young winger saw an opportunity to exploit the space behind the Chelsea defence as the game stopped for a substitution.
Even while the play stalled for the late change, he remained on his toes and when the ball dropped into the danger area on the edge of the box, he was underneath it, his anticipation and alarming acceleration allowing him to latch onto the long pass and hit the winning goal with virtually no time left on the clock for a reply.
Mohamed Salah – twice the Blues' scourge in previous European fixtures – had struck again, calling upon his sharp mind and rapid pace to open up a tight game and make the decisive move.
Just six or seven years earlier, the same vibrant youngster had been cooped up on a bus in the Nile Delta, patiently making the long and arduous journey to football training as he strove to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Now a Chelsea player, Salah casts his mind back to those days back home in Egypt when he dedicated all his spare time to the game he loved.
"I learned football with my friends on the streets in Tanta, where I grew up," he explained. "Then, when I was 13, I joined a club called Arab Contractors, where I had to go a long way by bus just to get to training. Then it was the same coming back.
"For three years, I did this almost every day and I would make this journey maybe five or six times a week. It was not easy."
Yet all that bustling energy bubbling away under the surface as he sat patiently on the bus with his boots, waiting to unleash it on the training field in Nasr City, was all worth it in the end.
It certainly shows the lengths that the young winger had to go to in order to impress himself on top-flight Egyptian club sides, who didn't traditionally come knocking on the doors of young players in Tanta. In fact, when pressed, Salah cannot think of another top footballer to come out of his hometown.
That young boy, who loved the space and freedom to run with the ball, is still very much in evidence when Salah stretches his legs on the pitch nowadays, and back in Egypt there is great excitement about what he could achieve in the years to come.
"Egyptian people love football so much," he said. "As a boy, I watched every Champions League game on the TV and saw many, many good players. I remember watching Chelsea play against Liverpool in the Champions League – a 4-4 draw but Chelsea went through.
"It was a really great game and it has been my dream to play in England – the Egyptian people want to see players in the Premier League and now they will see me playing at Chelsea, so there is more pressure on me!"
That pressure has not shown during his international performances to date. Since he pulled on an Egypt shirt for the first time in September 2011, Salah has been running rings around the defenders of Africa, and his record of 17 goals in 27 appearances has established the 21-year-old as a national icon already.
"I started two years ago in the main team and it has been good for me so far. I hope I can score goals like this for Chelsea as well," he said. "In the Olympics, I scored three times in four games – I enjoyed playing here in London."
The Games certainly helped Salah to announce himself on a global stage. At the time, he was 19 and had only just signed for Basel in March 2012. Neither his youth nor the upheaval prevented him from starring in London, as his goals helped Egypt to gain the second qualification place behind Brazil at the expense of Belarus and New Zealand. Defeat by Japan in the quarter-final was disappointing, but Salah had shown the world what he was capable of and gained a feel for British football while he was at it.
Now, having got a taste of the Premier League in his first month as a Chelsea player, he is full of enthusiasm for the flowing football he has experienced so far.
"It is fantastic because you play open games a lot of the time, and you can play open football," he said. "London is a very nice city. Everyone told me it is fantastic and that I will love it here, and I have been learning more English as well."
Salah admits it is not easy to judge the step-up from one national league to another, especially when playing styles and tempo differ from country to country.
However, having played two seasons for his Egyptian club side Arab Contractors between the ages of 17 and 19, before making the move to Swiss champions Basel in April 2012, he feels he has taken a sensible route to the top.
Last year he was voted Swiss Golden Player for his performances as Basel won the league title and now he feels ready to take his game to the next level in the Premier League.
"Football in Switzerland and England is a little bit different," he said. "But if you were to go straight from Egypt to the Premier League, it would be too difficult – it's not possible!
"You have to take it step by step. At Basel, I played Europa League and Champions League football so I have experience of playing at this level. Also, the way Chelsea play – with three creative players behind the striker – is like the tactic we played at Basel, so 4-2-3-1 is normal for me – it is the same tactic. I can play in any of the three positions but I really like playing on the right, because I can go inside onto my left foot."
It was after cutting inside onto his left foot that Salah scored Basel's equaliser in their surprise 2-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, although he is quick to play down those goals against his new employers as he sets his sights on finding the net while wearing the blue shirt himself.
"I hope I can now start to score for Chelsea, not against Chelsea," he laughs. "I know it will not be easy to play every game for Chelsea because we have so many very good players in my position, but I hope to show how hard I work and then we will see.
"This move is a fantastic thing for me – going to a big team like this is fantastic for anyone – and I hope I can play here for a long time and have a good career."
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