San Siro, the most fabled of Italy’s stadiums, has seen Mohamed Salah break local hearts more times than it cares to remember.
There was his strike for Fiorentina, the only goal of the game at Inter Milan in March 2015. Freshly signed on loan at the Tuscan club after a low-impact spell at Chelsea, he latched on to a clearance and, under pressure, picked his spot with power and precision. It was one of several Salah goals that helped propel Fiorentina into Serie A’s European places in his half-season there and a goal that distanced Inter from reaching them.
There was the Salah goal for Roma at the tail-end of the next campaign, 2015-16, against AC Milan who, until Salah set the path to a 3-1 Roma victory with what is now regarded as a trademark - a counter-attacking sprint-and-finish - had held out hope of a top six, European finish. Salah flattened Milan’s hopes.
A year later, at the age of 24, and having made a stunning impression at two Serie A clubs, Salah was negotiating his move to Liverpool, in whose colours he was back at San Siro on Tuesday night, again breaking hearts. At 1-0 up in the last fixture of what always looked the toughest, most prestigious of this season’s Champions League group, Milan had a toe in the knockout phase. Once Salah equalised, setting the base for a 2-1 Liverpool victory, Milan were heading out of Europe altogether.
The goal itself had an element of deja vu. Rather like his strike for Fiorentina against Inter, it spoke for his alertness, his poise, a left-footed effort after picking up on a rebound, Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan having parried Divock Origi’s shot.
San Siro. Madrid’s Metropolitano. Porto’s Dragao. Real Madrid away. Leipzig. Jutland. Bergamo. Wherever he goes in the Champions League, Salah scores. Among the milestones he passed on Wednesday night, while securing Liverpool’s standard-setting six wins out of six in the otherwise brutal Group B, was scoring for the seventh consecutive away game in the Champions League.
To his list of hostile venues tamed, you could also add this season’s domestic collection. In the last two months Salah has scored twice at Goodison Park, and netted a hat-trick at Old Trafford - the top two on Liverpool’s traditional list of least welcoming venues - in a sequence that, viewed through any lens, is exceptional.
Salah's 20 Liverpool goals so far
The 2020-21 showreel includes goal-of-the-season contenders; the sheer number make this an outstanding season even by the standards Salah has previously set. “The physicality and desire he showed speaks volumes for attitude and approach,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp of Salah’s performance in Milan, in a match the visiting side could have lost with no effect on their status as group winners.
Salah’s goal was number 20 since August. That’s from 21 matches, and in reaching the total he matched a 34-year-old club record. Not since Ian Rush, in 1987, have Liverpool had a striker who hit 20 goals for them in five consecutive seasons. Rush’s consistency would earn him a transfer to Juventus, although, unlike Salah with Fiorentina and Roma, he made little impression on Serie A.
Come next month, the pressing question for Salah and tens of millions of Egyptian compatriots will be, can the conqueror of Milan, Madrid, and Manchester replicate his form in Garoua, northern Cameroon? That’s where Egypt will begin their bid to capture the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations on January 11.
AC Milan v Liverpool player ratings
They can expect it to feel hostile. Garoua is the closest of the venues for the Afcon finals to neighbouring Nigeria. Egypt’s first group game is against Nigeria’s Super Eagles, who will start the tournament among the favourites.
Klopp hopes the Egyptian FA will allow Salah - and Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Guinea’s Naby Keita - to join up a little later than the Fifa-prescribed 13 days before a country’s first fixture. The argument that Salah’s continuing his golden streak of club form would benefit his national team may have some sway, but Klopp’s main concern is that he can have his full attacking artillery available for the Premier League matches at Leicester City on December 28 and perhaps even at Chelsea on January 2.
A successful Afcon for Egypt would keep Salah away for over a month, with the final scheduled for February 6. That means, potentially, missing four or five of Liverpool’s league matches, two possible rounds of the FA Cup and a League Cup semi-final if the club reach it. Or, at Salah’s current rate of scoring, perhaps 10 fewer goals in his season’s total for Liverpool.
He’d sacrifice those were Liverpool to thrive in his absence and Egypt to lift the Nations Cup. It would give their superstar a first major international title - a prize that would be noted when it comes to the voting for the next Ballon D’Or, for which Salah is already shaping up as a leading candidate.