Mohamed Salah did not disclose much in an interview with Marca last week but enough to let the Spanish sports daily with close ties to Real Madrid know that, yes, he is open to playing in La Liga one day and, yes, there is “special motivation” for Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday. A reunion with the Spanish champions is one he and Liverpool have craved since their agonising night in Kyiv in 2018.
There will be no opportunity to exact personal revenge on Sergio Ramos with the Real captain sidelined by injury, but there always was more to a tie with major implications for two European heavyweights than Salah v Ramos part II. Just as there was more to the outcome of the 2018 Champions League final than the hold and twist by the Real defender that ended Salah’s involvement after 25 minutes. Loris Karius, left to walk alone after two dreadful goalkeeping errors, and Gareth Bale, with a 29-minute man-of-the-match display, saw to that.
A “special motivation” exists for Salah and the six other Liverpool players who remain from that night at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium (Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson would have made it nine in total) regardless of Ramos’s absence.
The four-times Champions League winner will be a huge loss for Real, who have lost seven of their past 10 games in the competition played without him. Age may have caught up with Ramos, who turned 35 on Tuesday, in terms of persistent injuries and consistent performance level, but his status as the leader of Zinedine Zidane’s team and as a dominant, domineering figure in Spanish football remains undimmed.
As does his ability to deliver on the big occasion and when Real need him most, such as during the 10-game winning run with which they surged to the league title last season after the restart. Thibaut Courtois, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema have all contributed more this term but, defensively, the team remain reliant on the veteran in the middle. Raphaël Varane and Nacho Fernández are far less assured without the guiding influence of Ramos, whose contract standoff with the club president, Florentino Pérez, has created an unnecessary sideshow in an already difficult season for Zidane.
With Real third in La Liga, trailing Atlético at the top by six points, humiliated by third-tier Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey and doubts surrounding Zidane’s future as manager, the Champions League has assumed an all-or-nothing significance for the Spanish champions. Their English counterparts can identify with that unforeseen pressure, although, unlike Real’s, Liverpool’s participation in next season’s Champions League appears dependent on winning a seventh European crown in Istanbul.
It is April, and Liverpool have yet to win at Anfield in this calendar year. Their one “home” victory arrived in neutral Budapest against RB Leipzig in the last 16. There is only one more opportunity to correct that damaging sequence, against Aston Villa next Saturday, before Real arrive for the second leg on the 14th.
Yet in an exhausting, demoralising and undistinguished campaign, the Premier League champions are four games away from a third Champions League final appearance in four seasons. That would be a remarkable feat by a fully functioning, fully fit team. It would be an extraordinary achievement by Liverpool in their state, although perhaps entirely in keeping with this peculiar campaign.
Salah’s consistently prolific output – five goals in Europe this season and 25 in all competitions – is all the more impressive for the problems Liverpool have faced and the knock-on effect that injuries to all senior central defenders had on midfield selection plus a well-drilled plan of attack.
The performances of all three first-choice forwards have suffered, with Roberto Firmino’s status threatened by the more potent Diogo Jota. Firmino has six goals in 37 appearances for Liverpool this term, though goals alone have never reflected the Brazilian’s influence on Jürgen Klopp’s team, and Sadio Mané 12 in 37.
Salah’s figures have remained outstanding, however, in a season when he has overtaken Steven Gerrard as Liverpool’s record goalscorer in the Champions League (it remains 30-25 in the former captain’s favour if qualifiers are included) and eclipsed his all-competitions tally of 23 from the emphatic title-winning year. As in Kyiv, Real will be well aware of where danger lies.
The risk for Liverpool is a player of the calibre and profile of Salah, who turns 29 in June, wanting out should Champions League football not be on offer at Anfield next season. Klopp has dismissed the prospect, insisting there is not only loyalty within his squad but belief in a complete recovery once key players return from injury.
“It is not a situation where a player in the squad says: ‘We are not in the Champions League so I have to leave,’” the Liverpool manager said last month after Salah’s agent, Ramy Abbas Issa, posted a cryptic tweet of a full stop following his client’s early substitution against Chelsea. “That will not happen. I know them well enough to know that. I know we have loyalty from the players.”
That may be true, and Liverpool’s recent improvement with Fabinho back in central midfield and Jota returning from injury supports Klopp’s conviction that this season’s domestic implosion is not evidence of long-term, structural decline.
Which makes the timing, and place, of Salah’s conversation with Marca all the more intriguing. The Egypt international rarely agrees to interviews but has given two in four months to the biggest sports outlets in Spain. He may be planting the seed for a costly exit or a new contract from Liverpool, with his existing deal due to expire in two years’ time, but that can wait.
A Champions League quarter-final that can shape the immediate future for Liverpool and Real Madrid comes first.