Uefa Champions League final: Mohamed Salah a man on a mission after last year's heartbreak

Egyptian forward finds himself in a similar position to 12 months ago - only now he will be aiming for a much better outcome

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For Mohamed Salah, May and June run to a pattern. He collects his end of season prize as the Premier League’s leading goalscorer. He takes centre stage in the biggest club match on the calendar, the Uefa Champions League final. Three weeks later, he’s the would-be superstar of the opening day of the year’s major international tournament.

Or at least that’s how the diary should have read in 2018, when he finished the English season as Footballer of the Year, went to Kiev for the European Cup final and onto Russia for the World Cup.

But there was a hitch, a heartbreaking one that shapes his thoughts this time around, as he goes from collecting his 2019 Premier League Golden Boot, to leading Liverpool’s front line in Saturday’s showpiece final against Spurs in Madrid, and then crossing the Mediterranean for the Africa Cup of Nations.

To recap, Salah missed the last hour of Liverpool’s confrontation with Real Madrid in Kiev, beaten by the intense pain and restricted mobility caused by an acute shoulder injury. He had been fit coming into the game; he had never been in better form, fresh from a record-breaking 32 Premier League goals and 44 overall in his first Liverpool campaign.

The damage to his shoulder was the direct result of a studied, pugnacious challenge from Madrid captain Sergio Ramos; it disrupted Liverpool almost as much as the goalkeeping error from Loris Karius that would give Madrid the first of their three goals that night.

The score had stood at 0-0 when Salah was in the game. The Egyptian left the field in tears. He missed out on his country's first World Cup match for 28 years, a narrow, last-gasp defeat to Uruguay. Salah played in and scored in the next two matches, but Egypt finished on the losing side in both.

To report that he carries a feeling of issues unresolved would be to understate the determination he will carry into the next four weeks, first in Madrid and then in his native Egypt, hosts of the most extended Africa Cup of Nations ever staged. “We want correct what happened last year,” he told reporters. “It’s more than a dream to score in the Champions League final, and to win the Cup of Nations.”

The Salah who takes on Tottenham Hotspur at the Metropolitano may not have quite the eye-catching statistics behind him as the 25-year-old version who was identified by Madrid’s Ramos as chief threat 12 months ago. But he is no less a player.

Yes, he scored 10 fewer goals in the Premier League in 2018-19 than the previous season, and this time shared the top marksmen award with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane, but he was just as strong on assists, 11. Mane has certainly benefited from Salah’s passes and crosses.

Yes, he is well shy of his remarkable 10 goals for the 2017-18 Champions League campaign, another towering stat from from his first year in Liverpool’s red, but then his team have not been quite the blitzing machine they were in Europe last term.

Salah, who missed the semi-final second leg comeback against Barcelona with concussion, has rather been part of a rollercoaster of resistance and collective strength, one that was almost derailed in the group phase, and seemed terminated after a 3-0 loss at Camp Nou.

To find much evidence of so-called ‘second-season’ syndrome, the common dip in effectiveness that footballers suffer after a breathtaking start, in Salah you would need a magnifying glass.

Salah still moves with lightning speed and if opposition defenders have now learned more detail about his preferences, like which way he is likely to slalom past them, he is scarcely more stoppable.

Spurs would testify to that. Salah has a habit of confounding Tottenham. It began when he was 20, fresh out of Egypt, and playing for Swiss club Basel. His first ever goal in European club competition helped Basel through to a Europa League semi-final at Spurs’s expense. Two seasons later, in 2014-2015, he was scoring against them again, for Fiorentina, in another Europa League knockout win.

An all-time highlight of the Salah showreel would be the soloist effort, all twists and turns, that left Ben Davies, Jan Vertonghen and Hugo Lloris bamboozled at Anfield in a dramatic 2-2 draw last season.

As crushing for Tottenham was the poised Salah header, deflected over the goalline by Toby Alderweireld in late March that earned Liverpool their second 2-1 win of this season over the North London club. Spurs have come to recognise Salah as a nemesis. They know this weekend he is a man with a mission.