LONDON • Three goals in nine games for Liverpool this season is a decent enough return for Mohamed Salah, but just small potatoes next to the glorious deluge of his last campaign.
The Egyptian forward was also below his best against a stronger team again on Saturday.
Since April, the Premier League Player of the Year has scored against Brighton, Saudi Arabia, West Ham and Southampton.
In the same period, he has also failed to score against Roma, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Tottenham, Paris Saint-Germain, and now Chelsea - again.
Flat-track bully, the unkind whispers have suggested, such is the nature of football at the level Salah has reached, a brutal business of starkly metered progress and constant comparison.
But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp offered his support to his star after substituting him in the 1-1 Premier League draw at Chelsea, and backed him to overcome his first difficult spell since joining the club last year.
Klopp, who replaced Salah with Xherdan Shaqiri just before the midway point of the second half, acknowledged that the 26-year-old had fallen below his usual standards and said he could not understand some of the player's decision-making in dangerous areas of the pitch.
COMPARING SALAH'S OPENING SEVEN LEAGUE GAMES
LAST SEASON (2017-18)
THIS SEASON (2018-19)
"It's always tactical," Klopp said of his decision to remove the player. "He was not injured. I know you will make a fuss of it, but that's football. It was not the best game of Mo's career, that's 100 per cent.
"But, coming into a game like this, constantly in (potentially scoring) situations, that makes him a world-class player. You fail, you miss, that happens - I've no problem with that. But he wants to be decisive. He wants to score in these situations."
Much has been said about Salah's "poor start" to the season, but it is probably due to heightened expectations following his 44-goal (32 in the league) tally last season.
The statistics show that he has scored three goals in the first seven league games this campaign, just one short of his total over the same number of matches last season.
One player who impressed Klopp, however, was Daniel Sturridge, who scored an 89th-minute equaliser following Eden Hazard's first-half opener for Chelsea.
The striker has had little to celebrate over several injury-blighted seasons at Liverpool but, with one deft swipe of his left boot, he rescued a last-gasp point and reminded his manager of his rare finishing prowess.
Sturridge, introduced as an 86th-minute substitute, took a matter of moments to score his 50th Premier League goal for Liverpool. It kept them unbeaten in the league this season, level with Manchester City on 19 points at the top of the table.
"He is a fantastic football player and he had a good pre-season, and he is in the best shape since I know him," Klopp told reporters.
"I am really happy for him, he works hard."
Chelsea are just two points back in third and showed their own title credentials by continuing an unbeaten start under Maurizio Sarri.
The Blues manager has routinely insisted that Chelsea cannot challenge Liverpool or City for the title, but admitted his side are closer than he thought after two meetings with Liverpool - they also beat the Reds 2-1 in the League Cup third round last week.
"No, I think they are further forward," said the Italian when asked if Chelsea are title contenders.
"But I also think we are more close than I thought one week ago.
"The first two places, as you know, for me, is going to be very difficult because Manchester City and Liverpool are a step forward on us.
"So it is very difficult. But I think we can fight for the Champions League (spots)."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS