Salah is 'best player on the planet now'

Liverpool's Mo Salah chips the ball over Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker for the Reds' second goal in the 5-2 rout of his former club in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Liverpool's Mo Salah chips the ball over Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker for the Reds' second goal in the 5-2 rout of his former club in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.PHOTO: REUTERS

Gerrard hails Egyptian after masterclass, but Klopp warns of Roma recovery in second leg

LONDON • It was only when Mohamed Salah left the field with 15 minutes remaining in Tuesday's Champions League semi-final first leg, with Liverpool leading 5-0, that Roma started believing.

It was only when the Egyptian magician in the No. 11 shirt was taken off that Roma felt like a spell had been lifted and they came to life, scoring two late goals.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp can hardly be blamed for the substitution, as Salah had run himself into the ground, scoring two goals and creating two more in the 5-2 win.

Roberto Firmino, who also netted a brace, and Sadio Mane added the other goals amid an electrifying atmosphere at Anfield.

But two goals in the final nine minutes - an Edin Dzeko strike and a Diego Perotti penalty - gave Roma hope they can make an unlikely comeback next Wednesday.

The spotlight, however, was on Salah, who scored two superb goals against his former club to take his season tally in all competitions to 43 and his Champions League total to 10 for the season - a club record for a Liverpool player in a single European campaign.

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    Teed up inside the Roma area in the 36th minute, Mohamed Salah was coolness personified as he curled his strike into the top corner. His majestic effort made him the first Liverpool player to score in 33 different matches in a single season.

    More importantly, it left Roma in ruins and Salah delivered a hammer blow in first-half stoppage time when he sprinted through a huge hole in the Italian side's defence to score again with a deft finish.

    Having scored two, Salah finished with another two assists as his passes allowed Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to net after the break. Considering his form this season, Salah was likely to score one or two. But he proved he could also effectively be the provider of goals for his team-mates.


    Emboldened by his side's stunning victory over Barcelona in the quarter-finals, Roma coach Eusebio di Francesco had made it clear he was not coming to Anfield just to frustrate Liverpool.

    "They have to do well to force us deep," he insisted on Monday. But, at the end of a chastening 90 minutes, he was left to rue his words as Liverpool ruthlessly exploited the visitors' defensive weakness and tactical naivety.

    Roma arrived without a clean sheet in their last 26 away Champions League matches, and it was easy to see why as Liverpool carved through them time and again.

    It did not help that di Francesco asked his defenders to deploy a high defensive line. They lacked the mobility to cover the space that Salah and Mane gleefully and effectively exploited with their pace and movement.


    Anfield is always at its best on European nights and the famous Kop End generated a deafening wall of sound from the moment the club's You'll Never Walk Alone anthem was belted out before kick-off.

    Roma wilted in the cauldron of noise and Liverpool took full advantage to move to the brink of a first Champions League final since 2007.

    Reds manager Jurgen Klopp has often spoken of the electric Anfield atmosphere and called on fans to be a boost to his team in crucial matches. They duly did so on Tuesday, providing a valuable edge inside the stadium.


The 25-year-old is now second favourite with many bookmakers behind Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo for this year's Ballon d'Or, which has been dominated by the Portuguese and Barcelona's Lionel Messi in the last decade, each winning the trophy five times.

Klopp was clearly impressed by Salah's finishing, which saw him open the scoring with a curling left-footed shot into the top corner and then double the advantage with a perfectly executed chip over goalkeeper Alisson Becker.

"The first goal is just a genius strike, he already scored a few like this, so that makes clear it is no coincidence," he told reporters.

"The second is brilliant play, Bobby (Firmino) between the lines and he (Salah) makes the play. Then he makes the other two goals," added Klopp, citing Salah's assists for Mane and Firmino.

Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard heaped praise on Salah.

"He's in the form of his life," he said. "It's difficult to compare him to the likes of your Ronaldos and Messis because they've been consistent year in, year out.

"But, without a shadow of a doubt, he's the best player on the planet right now."

Manchester United great Rio Ferdinand, now a BT Sport pundit, also weighed in.

"I've run out of words to describe the way this guy is performing this year," he said.

"Did we expect it at the beginning of the season? No. But he's shown that you can work at your game and go beyond what anyone would imagine. His finishing tonight, he's got to be regarded as, form wise, one of, if not the best player on the planet at the moment."

Klopp warned of the possibility of a Roma recovery next week.

The 5-2 result means Roma must reprise their remarkable comeback against Barcelona in the quarter-finals to deny Liverpool a place in the final in Kiev on May 26.

The Italian side had lost the first-leg clash 1-4 at Barcelona but advanced on away goals with a 3-0 win at home, where they have not conceded a goal in this season's Champions League.

"If one of my players doesn't think Roma will try to come back, then he will not play," Klopp said.

"We have to work again in Rome. There would have been work to do also if we had won 5-0."

Roma coach Eusebio di Francesco said his team have to believe they could turn the tie around.

"You have to believe because in football everything is possible," said the Italian.

"I don't want to hear about 'miracles' because it is about believing in your work and what we do.

"It is going to be different from the Barca game, it will be tougher. But whoever doesn't believe should stay at home."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2018, with the headline 'Salah is 'best player on the planet now''. Print Edition | Subscribe