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Inside FutbolInside Futbol

06 October 2018

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Egypt

Inside Scoop: Chelsea Have Beaten Liverpool to Special Talent in Mohamed Salah




Locarno, Switzerland, 8th December 2012. It seemed as if a giant-killing night was on the cards at the Stadio del Lido, the home ground of Swiss football minnows FC Locarno. That evening the Bianche Casacche (white jerseys in Italian) were leading 2-1 against Super League giants Basel in the round of 16 of the Swiss Cup. The Challenge League side’s dreams however were ended with 15 minutes to go, when Mohamed Salah scored his second goal of the game and saved Basel from a disappointing exit. Then, in extra-time, Valentin Stocker inflicted upon FC Locarno the final blow.

That game, played on the shores of Lake Maggiore, can now be seen as the turning point in Salah’s Basel career. Widely criticised for his inconsistency, the Egyptian showed he had talent and personality enough to carry the side on his shoulders and lead his team-mates out of a dark tunnel. “Generally, young and gifted players are not excited to go and play against lower divisions teams”, Basel coach Murat Yakin said. “However, Salah impressed me with his determination and positive attitude, like he was playing in the Champions League and not in the domestic cup. I was very angry with my players, because they made tactical mistakes an amateur team would be ashamed of. Salah was the exception.”

Yakin was key to transforming Salah from a promising but inconsistent talent into an established performer ready to cut his teeth in a bigger league. The coach deployed him in many different roles to aid his development: winger (on both flanks), number 10, shadow striker, and also first striker. While Salah’s technical and dribbling abilities have always made him potentially a top player, a lack of cold-blooded composure in front of goal limited his chances of a breakthrough. Yakin worked hard on the Egyptian’s main Achilles heel, with excellent results, as 10 goals (four in the Super League, five in Champions League, including the preliminary rounds, and one in the domestic cup) in the first half of the current season showed.

 

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Salah’s winning goal against Chelsea last November at St. Jakob Park provided the perfect example of the player’s improved finishing in front of goal. “After such breathtaking acceleration”, Basel striker Marco Streller said at the end of the game, “it deeply impressed me how Salah managed to stay so clear-headed, especially considering we were in the last minutes.” That was the third goal the Egyptian had scored against Chelsea in less than a year. The winger struck twice at Stamford Bridge, first on 2nd May in the Europa League semi-final (the first in Basel’s history), then on 18th September in the first meeting between the two sides in the Champions League group stage (the Swiss side won 2-1). 

Salah, who recently won the 2013 Swiss Golden Player Award for best player in the Swiss Super League, is the umpteenth treasure discovered by Basel, whose excellent scouting network,  alongside a productive youth system, have made a name for the Swiss club across planet football. As Basel chief scout Rudi Zbinden told Inside Futbol earlier this season: “Today it makes a difference to say ‘I’m going to play for Basel’ rather than ‘I’m going to play in the Swiss Super League’, because the players and their agents know that Basel can be an excellent springboard for a career at the highest level.” With Salah’s move to Chelsea, which came about despite real work by Liverpool to sign him, Basel received their highest ever transfer fee: €13m, over a million more than the €11.8m paid by Bayern Munich in 2012 for Xherdan Shaqiri – for whom Salah was always considered a direct replacement. 

Basel had been monitoring Salah since he became a regular with Egyptian side El Mokawloon Sporting Club in the 2010/11 season. The player, who was the youngest ever Egyptian league debutant at 15, impressed due to his pace, agility and amazing dribbling skills. His physique however was far from being the finished article. Moreover, Egyptians players often failed to acclimatise quickly in Europe, as was the fate of undoubtedly talented footballers like Hossam Mido, Hazem Emam, Hossan Ghaly and Hossam Hassan – the latter is Egypt's all-time top scorer but in Europe had only two disappointing spells in Switzerland (with Neuchatel Xamax) and Greece. “It’s hard to predict a player’s character”, Zbinden said. “Only time will tell if you made the right choice. We did, because Salah has always acted professionally. We decided to sign him after a friendly game Egypt’s Under-23s played against us in March 2012. Six days before the Egyptian Football Association cancelled the remainder of the Egyptian Premier League season after the Port Said tragedy.”

After the official retirement of legendary Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, Salah has become the new idol of the Pharaohs’ supporters. The new Chelsea winger shone at the 2011 CAF Under-23 Championship in Morocco, leading Egypt bronze and helping Hany Ramzy’s side to secure their first qualification to the Olympic Games for 20 years. Then at the 2012 London Olympics, he scored in each of Egypt’s group stage games – a superb performance against Real Madrid left-back Marcelo set the scene for Salah to be handed the 2012 CAF Most Promising Talent of the Year accolade he bagged just months later. 

Salah has enjoyed a notable impact with the Egyptian national team too, with 17 goals and 10 assists in 27 games. His six goals in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup made him the joint top scorer in the African qualification stages, alongside Aboutrika and Asamoah Gyan. Bob Bradley’s men however failed to reach Brazil 2014 after losing their playoff against Ghana. But that is far from the end of Salah’s World Cup story for Bradley. “Salah is the future of Egyptian football”, said the American coach, who was sacked after the playoff, “and his absence at the World Cup is a big loss for football. Time however is on his side, because Egypt is not Finland or Wales and Salah will have more chances than Jari Litmanen and Ryan Giggs.” Or indeed Gareth Bale, considered by the Egyptian international the best player in his position. Will Salah be able to follow in the Real Madrid star’s footsteps? Only time, and Jose Mourinho, will tell.


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