For many, including his management, it was a no-brainer.
For the first half of this season, Mohamed Salah was crowned the finest soccer player in the world practically weekly, displaying the kind of elite-level scoring form that only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and, more recently, Robert Lewandowski have been able to achieve this century.
It wasn’t simply the number of goals he scored for Liverpool — 22 in his first 23 appearances — that impressed. One’s breath was taken away by the sheer quality of them.
None more so than the intricate solo effort he conjured up against Manchester City at Anfield in October, midway during a run of 10 consecutive games in which he scored, which will undoubtedly be remembered as the Premier League’s goal of the season.
“Come on, who is better than him?” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp exclaimed aloud.
Six months later, Salah is stuck in a rut, to put it mildly. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that he might not even be Klopp’s go-to striker heading into a pivotal return encounter against City on Sunday that might determine the title’s fate.
Salah is having his worst scoring run of the season, with no goals in five games in all competitions and no open-play goals in six weeks, for a variety of reasons.
Is he exhausted? After all, he’s already appeared in 47 games this season.
Are Egypt’s tragic losses still present? Then there was the penalty-shootout loss in the African Cup of Nations final to Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane’s Senegal in February, followed by another shootout loss to the same opponent in a World Cup playoff last month.
Does it have anything to do with his contract dispute with Liverpool right now? That’s quite unlikely.
Maybe it’s just the whims of fate and circumstance. He’s still taking chances, he’s just not converting them.
This is not the Salah of six months ago, whatever it is. In each of Liverpool’s last two games, he was replaced midway through the second half after poor performances by his lofty standards.
Klopp stated this week, “Sometimes he could decide in a better way, no doubt about it, pass the ball faster and all these things.” “However, Sadio (Mane) and Mo have a difficult spell ahead of them, with the Africa Cup and then having to be available for us again with all the games.”
“Having these tiny (ups and downs) in a season is perfectly typical.”
Is Klopp going to bench Salah against City on Sunday? To do that to the Premier League’s top scorer, he’d have to be a courageous man. But it’s not as if he’s without options.
And in Diogo Jota, Klopp has a striker who has helped to shoulder Liverpool’s scoring burden, first when Salah was away at the African Cup, and then throughout Salah’s recent problems.
Jota appears to have displaced Roberto Firmino as Liverpool’s first-choice center forward, doing all of the dirty labor that the Brazilian does — tracking back, pushing, harrying defenders — while scoring a lot more goals.
Jota has scored four goals in his previous six games, including the FA Cup quarterfinal winner against Nottingham Forest and league openers against Arsenal and Watford. With 14 goals, he is tied for second in the league in scoring.
Jota is expected to start versus City after resting against Benfica in the Champions League in midweek. The key question is which two players will flank him in the three-pronged forward line.
And it is here that Liverpool has the upper hand against City, who will enter the game at Etihad Stadium one point ahead of Klopp’s side with eight games remaining. Klopp may rely on Salah, Jota, Firmino, Mane, and January signing Luis Diaz, who has fitted in flawlessly since joining from Porto.
City have a bevy of talented offensive midfielders and forwards, but none of them have the cutting edge of Salah or Jota when they’re on form.
Pep Guardiola, the City manager, understands that a draw is enough to put the title race in his team’s hands. If that occurs, City will win the league if it wins its final seven games.
The pressure is on Liverpool to go on the attack, which adds to the game’s allure for spectators.
Klopp understands he has the offensive players to overwhelm City after playing a front four of Mane, Salah, Jota, and Firmino at the Etihad two seasons ago.
Whether or not Salah is in the lineup.