Mohamed Salah: Chelsea still haunted by one of football's greatest misjudgments

Egyptian star has been transformational for Liverpool while his former club continues to struggle as the two rivals meet in Sunday's League Cup final

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Ten years ago this weekend, Mohamed Salah sat on the substitutes’ bench of a famous London stadium, watching and waiting. Behind him, close up and noisy in Stamford Bridge’s tight East Stand, supporters were becoming frustrated.

Their team, top of the Premier League, had turned impotent. The best African striker of a generation was having a poor day in front of goal; another forward, lured from the grasp of Liverpool, made little impact during his half an hour on the pitch. Only in injury time did the hosts, Chelsea, scramble a 1-0 win over Everton.

Salah never got on to the field, left instead to imagine how his speed might have made a difference, perhaps in place of Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroonian veteran picked as Chelsea’s centre-forward.

Or to wonder if he, Salah, who had angered Liverpool a month earlier by choosing to join Chelsea rather than them, would have been a more dynamic impact substitute than the ex-Red Fernando Torres.

The confidence of Torres, soon to turn 30, had waned visibly since leaving behind his peak years at Anfield for a burdensome combination of high price-tag and low goals-per-game ratio at Chelsea.

But such was the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge in 2014: age over youth, experience over fresh faces. Salah, 21, would spend many afternoons watching and waiting as a Chelsea employee. “He needs time,” the then Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, explained.

“Step by step, 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there,” advised Mourinho of the menu of first-team action Salah, signed for around €16m from Basel in that winter’s transfer window, should expect.

“We bought a kid from a different habitat, an Egyptian playing in Switzerland. We knew the kid was going to need time. We know next season he will be really good for us.”

Mourinho proved half right in his forecast. The next season Salah did indeed show what a brilliantly decisive footballer he is. Only he was doing it on loan for Fiorentina. His stay at Chelsea had lasted barely a calendar year.

A decade on, Chelsea’s neglect of Salah’s talent, their discarding of him in his early 20s, ranks as an epic misjudgement. It’s become a flagpole in the timeline not just of a record-breaking footballer, as much a giant for Africa as Eto’o had been in the 2000s, an icon across the Mena region, but in how football is run and played at its richest, most elite level.

Since Salah returned to English football, via Florence and Rome, to join Liverpool in 2017, he has never stopped reminding Chelsea of their error.

Ahead of Sunday’s League Cup final, Chelsea versus Liverpool, it is Salah’s fitness that has been the consuming pre-match issue. Ten years on from that chilly, frustrating afternoon at Stamford Bridge, he may again only be on the bench at a famous London arena, but, at Wembley, he would sit there only by way of a precaution, to protect a tender hamstring for the multiple trophy-chase Liverpool have ahead.

And, starting XI or not, Salah will still be the figure that haunts Chelsea most of all.

It will be his 24th Chelsea-Liverpool collision, a fixture that gauges how much Salah has reshaped the order of English football. His first was the only one where he wore blue: May 2014, when the young, short-haired Salah had made enough Chelsea appearances, to, as Mourinho noted, to “feel the connection between him and the crowd; they like him, they like his style of play”.

But as winter turned to spring, Chelsea were fading from the title race as Liverpool surged in it, towards a possible first English league crown for 24 years. With three games left on the calendar, Salah was in Mourinho’s starting XI at Anfield.

It was a famous, ill-fated day for Liverpool, adding to the club’s reputation as nervous nearly men, lacking title-winning calibre. Their captain Steven Gerrard slipped, miscontrolling a simple pass, Chelsea’s Demba Ba took advantage. Chelsea’s win invited Manchester City to steam clear in what had been a tight three-way jostle for the Premier League.

A week later, Salah was again in Chelsea’s XI against Norwich City, but asked to play a deeper, midfield role than his natural one. After a goalless first-half, Mourinho singled out “the kid who needs time” for severe criticism, substituting him at the interval.

Others in the dressing room that day report Salah as stunned by the manager’s harsh words, fighting back tears. Salah never started a home league game for Chelsea again.

His returns to Stamford Bridge over his six and a half years transforming Liverpool have been consistently punishing for Chelsea. Day one of the current campaign featured a Salah assist – one of the 89 of his Liverpool career – to put the first point on the board in a 2023/2024 title race Liverpool now lead. He set up goals, home and away, in victories over Chelsea in 2019/20, the season that delivered the league crown that had eluded Liverpool for 30 years.

It was against Chelsea that Salah reached double figures for Premier League goals in a Liverpool jersey in the emphatic start to his Anfield career: 10 in his first 13 games. He’s now on 205 in 334 Liverpool matches, across competitions.

And here’s the really painful comparison for Chelsea. Over the last nine years at Serie A’s Fiorentina and Roma and then in England’s Premier League with Liverpool, Salah has scored 187 top-flight goals. That’s an average of almost 21 per season.

In the same period, no Chelsea player has completed a league season with more than 20. With Salah, Liverpool have never finished below Chelsea in the table; in the half-dozen years before Salah moved from Roma to Liverpool, Chelsea finished above Liverpool in every season but one.

In Cup showpieces, it’s all one-way: the three Liverpool-Chelsea finals since 2017 have gone to penalties, but always gone Red, with Salah among the successful spot-kick takers in Liverpool’s wins in the FA Cup and League Cup finals of 2021-22 and in the Uefa Super Cup of 2019.

If Salah participates in a fourth Liverpool-Chelsea final on Sunday, tender hamstring or not, he’ll slot straight into the groove. The team’s routines have become second nature, because, under Jurgen Klopp’s long management, they are designed around Salah’s strengths, ones that Mourinho recognised all those years ago: “he is the kind who prefers passes [played] into space. He’s fast, he’s direct, he’s aggressive with the ball”.

Liverpool detected the same, envisaging in Basel’s goalscoring tyro someone who could give them the quick-break effectiveness that Torres used to. Salah, when he eventually came to Anfield, would upgrade that model significantly.

The urgent pressing, swift transition football of Klopp’s Liverpool starts with Salah’s energy, sharp-eyed intelligence and pace. It has become a tactical model others strive to copy; it has accelerated the development of those around him, like Trent Alexander-Arnold, a right-back for whom the privilege of playing in the space behind Salah has been liberating, a platform to radically reinterpret the role of full-back.

Chelsea’s inheritance from the Great Salah Misjudgment? If you heard the club’s co-owner, Todd Boehly, talking about the institution he had recently purchased in 2022, you’d think they had simply gone into denial.

“Our academy is Mo Salah,” Boehly erroneously told a business conference, mistakenly classing the Egyptian, who came up through the youth ranks at Al Mokawloon in Nasr City, Cairo, as a homegrown Chelsea alumnus.

Truth is he was an imported Chelsea talent, cleverly scouted but horribly squandered, and not even sold at significant profit, Chelsea converting his €5m loan to Roma to a permanent transfer there for another €15m in 2016.

The final sale fee was less than Chelsea had paid Basel. Roma made a profit of almost €30m a year later, when Liverpool finally got their man.

But Boehly and his consortium have heeded the painful Salah lesson. The squad Chelsea take to Wembley will probably include seven or eight players signed, within the past 18 months, who are in their early 20s. Among them: Nicolas Jackson, a precocious African striker, as Salah was a decade ago; an exciting winger, in Mikhailo Mudryk, who, as with Salah in 2014, was signed after a transfer tug-of-war with Premier League rival, Arsenal in the case of Mudryk.

Neither Jackson nor Mudryk may ever come anywhere near Salah’s status, but, like Enzo Fernandez, Moises Caicedo, Cole Palmer, Noni Madueke or Malo Gusto, these are footballers Chelsea have recruited young and committed to unusually long contracts, of seven or eight years.

That’s a signal of Chelsea emphasising youth in a way they did not in the past. Now, if a talent is to leave Chelsea young, they will at least be carrying a long-term resale value. The learnings of the Great Salah Misjudgment have directly realigned how Chelsea, the Premier League’s biggest spenders, do business.

Last summer, Liverpool rejected offers for Salah that climbed close to €200m from within Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, where he continues to be regarded as the prime object of desire.

The hope, in Riyadh and Jeddah, is that, with Klopp set to leave Anfield this summer, the totemic Liverpool player from the Klopp era may also think about a fresh challenge.

Before then, there’s a possible quadruple of trophies, starting with the League Cup, for Salah to add to his ample haul of medals with Liverpool. Chelsea, meanwhile, sit mid-table in the Premier League, not in any European competition, still haunted by the superstar they let slip away.

Updated: February 25, 2024, 5:10 AM