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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Mo Salah is finally injured – now Egypt and Liverpool can only hope and pray

For a few seconds, Mohamed Salah stood there with his hands on his hips.

He was all alone on the pitch in Abidjan’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium, and as Ghana attacked, it seemed as though he was considering the implications of what he was about to reveal.

Then, he was on the floor, rubbing the hamstring on his left leg, signalling to the Egyptian bench. He was shaking his head. Slowly, he was helped to his feet by two physiotherapists. 

There is something robotic about the way Salah plays football because of his consistency and availability. He is always there, he never lets his team down – not Egypt, and not Liverpool. 

But here, he was gone. Out of the game, and possibly – the worst-case scenario – out of the Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament he has never won.

At the age of 31, maybe that means something — maybe it doesn’t. There was emotion. The blood had drained from his face. There was a sense of concern in his eyes that bordered on bereavement.

Mohamed Salah on the turf after pulling up injured (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

His coach at national level is Rui Vitoria, a Portuguese with a convincing but jovial way about him. If you examine body language, he did not seem overly concerned by this development. Without Salah, Egypt salvaged a 2-2 draw against Ghana having fallen behind in the game twice.

Vitoria claimed that he did not know what Salah’s problem was. “I think it is not dangerous, but let’s see.”

If it is a hamstring, and it certainly looked like it, even if it was merely tightness, it seems impossible that Salah will play in Egypt’s final group game against Cape Verde on Monday.

This is a fixture they will probably need a point from, if they are to progress as the third best team in Group B.

If the hamstring has been torn, however, Salah will face far longer on the sidelines, and that has grave implications not just for Egypt and their hopes of winning this competition for the first time since 2010, but also for Liverpool.

Across six and a half seasons at Anfield, he has missed just 10 Premier League matches through injury. His durability is incredible, and so, the sight of him pulling up so suddenly was highly unusual.

The last time a moment like this happened? That would be the Champions League final in Kyiv nearly six years ago, when Sergio Ramos dragged him to the floor, dislocating his shoulder.

That injury was caused by someone else but this one was more worrying because there was no apparent reason for it.

Salah rarely misses minutes of football matches, never mind entire football matches. He hates it. There have been occasions during his club career where he’s been scheduled for a rest. Salah has insisted on playing. Sometimes, this has involved 90 minutes instead.

Egyptians say he has programmed himself this way. As a teenager, he hit the gym. He saw the way the game was going in Europe and that is where he wanted to be. Cristiano Ronaldo was not his idol but he examined his physique and followed him.

The Liverpool squad has had problems with muscle injuries over a number of years. There are a few reasons for this. Some players just find it hard adjusting to the expectations in training of Jurgen Klopp, a notoriously demanding coach. Salah has never been one of them.

On Merseyside, alarm bells will be ringing. Klopp had suggested that he wanted Salah back as quickly as possible but not like this. Grade one or grade two hamstring tears can be resolved in three to eight weeks. The diagnosis nobody wants is a grade three because that can involve as long as three months out.

In Liverpool, they would call this game a “ding-dong.” Yet until his exit, Egypt struggled to create chances and so had Ghana. Vitoria suggested both teams were “studying each other, all of the space, but without showing courage.” 

Mohamed Salah before his injury for Egypt (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

Salah’s exit gave Ghana encouragement. Within 50 seconds, they were ahead, thanks to Mohamed Kudus, who insisted Salah’s injury had nothing to do with the immediate Ghana response. “I’m really sorry for him but we play the game with the same mentality, with or without him,” he claimed afterwards.

Vitoria had work to do at half-time. The Egyptian players were “upset,” but only because of the scoreline. He appreciates Salah’s worth, dismissing the idea that the team played better when he was not there. To think any team might be just fine without a player like Salah is insane. 

“Salah is an amazing footballer, one of the best in the world,” Vitoria said. “And we want this kind of player with us.”

Yet in the second half, Egypt’s mindset changed. There was, according to Vitoria, more “positive energy.”

“It was a good reaction. I like it. But Salah is an amazing player, we cannot forget that.”

If Vitoria was worried, he certainly did not show it. Kudus fired in both of Ghana’s goals but Vitoria admitted to not seeing the identity of the scorer of the second one. “I just saw the ball in the goal. And I wanted to kick everyone at that moment.”

He found that funny. He was laughing. Does that say anything about the seriousness of Salah’s condition?

Perhaps he is just too experienced for any of this to get in the way of his focus. During his time at Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola suggested Vitoria’s Benfica team was one of the most difficult to beat. He knows what he’s doing.

AFCON’s format means four of the best third placed teams qualify and that means taking three points in total is a must. Egypt currently has two and Ghana, one. Ordinarily, each nation would be expected to beat Cape Verde and Mozambique in their final games and ensure progression but these are tricky opponents who have already proven in the competition they are capable of unsettling much bigger football nations.

Mohamed Salah on the Egypt bench after coming off (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Salah started his recovery sat on the hard floor in front of the Egyptian bench with an ice pack strapped to his leg, but by the end of the night he was standing up, and engaged with the action. At least the journey time back to base was swift and without comfort issues.

Hotel Tiama is just over the road from the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium, which has a whiff of the Louis II in Monaco about it. 

A few hours before kick off, there was a party mood at the hotel’s adjoining restaurant with men and women in Ivory Coast shirts drinking cocktails on the balcony of the l’Ambassadeur, singing along to Akwaba, the tournament’s anthem.

Perhaps it was a good thing for Salah that the host country lost to Nigeria. If he is to respond quickly to this setback, a good start would be getting some decent sleep.

Read the full article here

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