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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Portugal v Egypt: Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah has transformed from wideman to goal guarantor

Salah’s numbers are staggering. In his debut season with Liverpool, he has 36 goals. Twenty-eight have come in the Premier League. He will come face-to-face with Ronaldo in a friendly on Friday at Stadion Letzigrund

In October, when Egypt qualified for a first World Cup since 1990, Mohamed Salah scored the opener in the decisive match against Congo. When all hope seemed lost, he struck the winner, converting a penalty five minutes into injury time. Nariman El-Mofty / AP Photo
In October, when Egypt qualified for a first World Cup since 1990, Mohamed Salah scored the opener in the decisive match against Congo. When all hope seemed lost, he struck the winner, converting a penalty five minutes into injury time. Nariman El-Mofty / AP Photo

Mohamed Salah notched his third senior hat-trick, Cristiano Ronaldo his 50th.

They each added a fourth goal for their respective clubs on the day, Salah seeing off Watford with Liverpool and Ronaldo rolling over Girona with Real Madrid.

So Ronaldo has his half-century of matchday balls. Salah has three. As is customary, the latest was signed by his Liverpool teammates. Jordan Henderson, the club captain, added an additional note following the 5-0 evisceration at Anfield, a match in which Salah scored four and assisted the other. “Well done, superstar,” he scribbled.

For that is what Salah has fast become. In his second stint in England, he has routinely bent the Premier League to his will. Jurgen Klopp likened his forward to Lionel Messi, although somewhat reluctantly, his reticence understandable. News outlets anointed Salah Ronaldo’s successor at Madrid. Having cost £37.5 million (Dh195m) nine months ago, he is apparently worth six times that now.

However fantastical that sum sounds, it sustains a common theme: Salah’s numbers are staggering. In his debut season with Liverpool, he has 36 goals. Twenty-eight have come in the Premier League. He sits three short of the record held by Alan Shearer, Ronaldo and Luis Suarez since the league was reduced to 20 teams. There are seven matches remaining.

Currently, Salah scores every 85.5 minutes in England’s top flight. He is on course to hit 35 goals. No one since Southampton's Ron Davies has reached that mark. That was in 1967.

Cristiano Ronaldo performs during his team's training session at Cidade do Futebol in Oeiras, near Lisbon. Antonio Cotrim / EPA
Cristiano Ronaldo performs during his team's training session at Cidade do Futebol in Oeiras, near Lisbon. Antonio Cotrim / EPA

Thus, 2018 promises much. Not just for Liverpool, but for Egypt too. If Salah shares the burden for club, one third of an accomplished attacking triumvirate at Liverpool, with country he stands alone. He is Egypt's focal point, their chief creator and goalscorer rolled into one.

In October, when the national team qualified for a first World Cup since 1990, Salah scored the opener in the decisive match against Congo. When all hope seemed lost, he struck the winner, converting a penalty five minutes into injury time. With a swish of his left boot, he snapped 28 years of hurt.

On Tuesday, Salah joined Egypt’s World Cup preparations in Zurich. On Friday, he is expected to face Portugal in the friendly at Stadion Letzigrund.

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Read more:

John McAuley: Hector Cuper coy on Egypt's plans for 'best player in the world' Cristiano Ronaldo

John McAuley: Mohamed Salah-led Egypt use Zurich camp as World Cup warm-up despite contrary weather conditions

Andy Mitten: Reliving Cristiano Ronaldo's first hat-trick while at Manchester United

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“The fans want to watch Mohamed Salah playing against Cristiano Ronaldo,” Egypt manager Hector Cuper said.

There is little doubt they do. At training on Wednesday, Salah was mobbed by supporters. Jerseys were thrown towards him; fathers thrust their daughters through the crush simply to catch a closer glimpse. All the while, Salah smiled, posed for pictures, signed autographs. The rest of the squad slipped by almost unnoticed.

It is the sort of reverential treatment Ronaldo endures and most probably enjoys. As Portugal captain and by some way their lead light, he has hauled a decent national team to international success. Two years ago, Portugal were crowned European champions.

It is anticipated Salah can have a similarly talismanic effect. Egypt will view escaping Group A as a positive tournament. In two previous World Cup appearances, they have yet to win a match. Like Ronaldo and Portugal, Salah holds the key to Egypt's hopes.

Like Ronaldo, Salah has transformed from wideman to goal guarantor. With 36 and counting, the record reinforces his remodelling. There are intangibles, too. Salah embodies now what Ronaldo once did, that when he bears down on an opponent, there is not much that rival can do. Stand aside. Or crumple to the turf, like Miguel Britos on Saturday.

He is a speed freak, a controller of tight spaces, the difference between a team considered excellent and exceptional. At 33, Ronaldo's role may be revised, but he retains that transformative ability also.

At 25, Salah still has some way to go. Not just in matchday balls, but in medals and moments of real magnitude. Yet this season suggests he is hotfooting it in the right direction. As much as Liverpool have learnt to do, Egypt expects.

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