Mohamed Salah leads departing Premier League stars to add new twist to title race

About 40 players will be unavailable as they head to the Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup

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On the first day of Mohamed Salah’s sixth new year as a Liverpool player, he marched past another milestone. His 150th Premier League goal for the club had been briefly postponed by a penalty being saved. He made full amends in the second half of Liverpool’s 4-2 victory over Newcastle United with two goals of his own and two superb passes in the immediate lead-in to two more.

Quite a souvenir for a fan base anticipating what might be 30 days of Salah’s absence, should Egypt, spearheaded by their superstar make it to their third Africa Cup of Nations final in four attempts.

Salah certainly intends to be in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, on February 12 for the final.

“I want to win this competition, would love to win it,” he said on departing a rapturous Anfield, bound for Africa. “It’s a great feeling every time I step on the field with the national team jersey, something I cannot take for granted.”

Nor can Salah take it for granted that Liverpool will still be on their elevated perch by the time he returns, as many as eight club games later, including four in the league. Thanks to an exhilarating performance against Newcastle, there is a cushion of three points between their top place and Aston Villa in second, but the cluster of teams around the top is still tight.

Salah was generous towards his colleagues: “We have fantastic players, who can play in my position, and who can do what I am doing,” he said.

But while Diogo Jota, on a Salah-like counter-attack, won one penalty on Monday, and Luis Diaz, with some nimble, Salah-style footwork another and Trent Alexander-Arnold produced a glorious moment of daring and enterprise from Salah’s favoured right flank, nobody departed Anfield imagining Jurgen Klopp’s team are as reliably potent without their main man.

Cody Gakpo was among those thanking him – for the sheer quality of the Salah cross that allowed Gakpo to convert Liverpool’s third even with a miscued connection. As was Curtis Jones, sweeping in a Jota centre after Salah’s superb angled pass had played him behind the Newcastle defence.

“Mo can change a game,” Klopp noted, before adding a key observation. The fluffed penalty, struck well within Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s reach, had left a dominant Liverpool without reward at half time, an anxious situation in such a knife-edge title race, one where Liverpool’s current advantage owes as much to two successive wins as to Arsenal losing twice within three days.

“Mo can improve in a game, because he’s done it hundreds of times,” said Klopp of Salah’s reaction to the saved spot-kick. “The more goals you have the more you are used to missing chances and to understanding what you have to do to keep going, and improving. That was what Mo did.”

There’s a subtext of advice in that remark for Darwin Nunez, the young forward whose barren spell in front of goal has been broken just once in his last 14 games. While Klopp emphasised Darwin’s coolness in supplying the pass for Salah’s first goal, the Uruguayan will now assume a share of the responsibility of compensating for Salah’s goals. He does so without a dynamic run of scoring form to embolden him.

The weight of Salah’s contribution is spelt out by statistics. More than half of Liverpool’s Premier League goals so far this season have involved the Egyptian as finisher or assister.

Across competitions, his 18 goals from 27 appearances are twice as many as the next best, Jota’s nine. Ominously for Liverpool, there’s a historic tendency, during the tenure of Klopp, to be less effective in their Januarys than during their Decembers, although they have been relatively blessed in how far Salah’s Afcon absences have previously hurt them.

The 2019 Cup of Nations was a summer tournament, played outside the domestic programme; in 2022, when Egypt suffered heartbreak, losing to Senegal on penalties in the final, Salah was away for just two Premier League matches.

The impact on this season looks potentially greater. Salah’s absence is coupled with that of Wataru Endo, increasingly influential in Liverpool’s midfield, who will be on duty with Japan at the Asian Cup in Qatar, which runs simultaneously with Afcon.

Tottenham Hotspur, in fifth place in the table, are also counting up departures, the most prominent Son Heung-min, on his way to Qatar with South Korea. Like Salah at Liverpool, Son is Spurs’s leading scorer this season by a distance. He likened his imminent absence to Harry Kane’s periods out injured in the years Son and Kane used to share senior responsibility in Tottenham’s attack.

“When Harry was missing with injuries, I felt like I needed to step up in previous years,” said Son. “I hope our players feel they need to step up for this kind of situation. I hope everybody who is playing attacking positions can score as many goals as possible and bring us to a better position.”

Tottenham’s winter burden goes beyond just missing their best striker, only six months after their former spearhead Kane joined Bayern Munich. Call-ups by Senegal and Mali for Afcon of Pape Matar Sarr and Yves Bissouma would mean significant adjustments to Spurs’ midfield.

Around 40 players from England’s top division are earmarked to participate in either Afcon or Asian Cup. Manchester United wave off goalkeeper Andre Onana with Cameroon and midfielder Sofyan Amrabat with Morocco. Wolverhampton Wanderers will learn how reliant they are on Korea’s Hwang Hee-chan, whose energy and goals have buttressed their excellent last month of league form.

To measure the heavy potential impact of African and Asian football’s bi-annual showpieces on the Premier League over the next four to six weeks, glance only at the leader board of scorers. Salah, Son and Hwang are three of the six men to have reached double figures so far in the global playground that is elite English football.

Updated: January 03, 2024, 6:01 AM