Ahead of the Uefa Champions League and Europa League semi-finals this week, Ian Hawkey addresses the big talking points ahead of the first leg fixtures.
Mo’s new motor
Nobody can say plausibly they foresaw the degree of impact Mohamed Salah would have in his first season at Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp, the manager under whom the Egyptian is challenging for the prize of top scorer in the Premier League, admits he has been stunned by quite how prolific Salah has turned out as a marksman, and how smoothly he has dominated a league where he was marginalised during a previous spell with Chelsea.
At Roma, the club who sold Salah last summer and must now contain him over two legs of Champions League semi-final, they are surprised, too. Salah in Rome was a great asset, but more as supplier of passes and counter-attacking impetus that of match-winning goals. He found the net once every 193 minutes as a Roman; as a Liverpool player he has struck his 41 goals in the current campaign at one every 89 minutes on the field.
His assist statistics are similar across both stints of his career, at around one every three games, and ahead of Tuesday's collision at Anfield, the chief recipient of Salah's incisive passes last season, Roma centre-forward Edin Dzeko has been teasing Salah with affectionate challenges via text message.
Salah has been reminded through the social grapevine that Roma’s defenders and goalkeeper Alisson know his tricks better than most. They trained with him day in day out - except Aleksandar Kolarov, who came in at left-back the same time Salah departed for England. Kolarov is likely to be dealing with Salah most intensively of anybody.
He will have noted that the Salah of today looks a far more accomplished footballer than the Salah Kolarov would see stuck on the Chelsea substitutes’ bench during part of Kolarov’s time playing for Manchester City, and more accomplished than the Salah who zipped down Roma’s right wing in 2016-17. “At Roma, he was really good very, very offensive midfield player,” is Klopp’s analysis. “He’s developed to another stage, and is very cool in front of goal.”
The Neuer question
Manuel Neuer, captain of Bayern Munich and of world champions Germany, has not played since September, when a recurrence of a metatarsal injury convinced him he needed surgery on his foot. Initially, Bayern missed the celebrated goalkeeper, but as deputy Sven Ulreich has grown in confidence, there is apparently less urgency about bringing him back into the first-team.
Neuer is now training with his colleagues again, his recuperation all but complete. “I have a plan for him,” said Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes at the weekend, although he would not divulge whether that involved the first, or the second, leg of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, or involved neither of these heavyweight collisions, matches with the sort of heavyweight character Ulreich has seldom encountered.
Neuer, competitive, confident soul that he is, may also wonder if facing up to Real Madrid is the best re-entry point to competitive football after his long lay-off. No team has inflicted more regular batterings on his goal through his Bayern career: He has let in 14 Madrid goals in six contests against Ronaldo and company.
Wenger’s three steps to perfect closure
A measure of quite how unique Arsene Wenger's Arsenal career will look when it ends next month is summed up by this striking fact: The second longest-serving manager in top-flight football across Europe's top five leagues is the man he takes on in Thursday's Europa League semi-final. Yes, Diego Simeone's reign at Atletico Madrid, dating from December 2011, is the most sustained continuous reign in a top division in Spain, England, Germany, Italy or France after Wenger's 22 years at Arsenal.
Arsenal’s players have vowed to send off Wenger with a trophy, and the Europa League is the only one left now that he has announced he will step down after this season. The 180 minutes against Atletico will be tough, but if he has looked beyond them he will know that if Marseille win the other semi-final, against Red Bull Salzburg, he has a chance of a very poignant last day on Arsenal’s bench.
Wenger’s fierce rivalry with Marseille dates back to the 1980s, when he was coaching a fine Monaco who were pipped to a number of French prizes by Marseille, a Marseille later found to have bribed opponents. That era left Wenger bitter and legitimately feeling cheated.
Flying the flag? Not Barcelona
Joan Gaspart, who was president of Barcelona at the turn of the millennium, was among those thrilled at the club's emphatic victory in the Copa del Rey final this weekend, a small consolation for the shock elimination of the soon-to-be Liga winners from the Champions League by Roma. Gaspart wants one more thing to round off the campaign.
“This may sound incorrect,” he told Spanish TV, “but for the season to be complete, I’d just like Real Madrid not to win the Champions League.” It sounds a little incorrect, but will surprise nobody.