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Why Salah's struggles against big sides could sink Liverpool's season

Few footballers are as infallible as Mohamed Salah.

The always smiling, seemingly approachable, and buoyant Egyptian star is both a top-tier footballer and an ostensibly quotidian presence among a Reds side rife with players shaped in the likeness of Liverpool’s blue collar ethos.

There’s a certain correlation between how likable a player is, and how difficult it is to criticize them. Salah remains atop a pedestal of football’s most appreciated, and also it’s least maligned. And for good reason, as Salah marked his return to the Premier League last season with a record-smashing 32-goal haul, he did so during a campaign littered with preposterous performances that nearly saw Liverpool capture a shock sixth continental crown.

Salah was indiscriminate in his dominance.

With a thunderous left foot and deceivingly swift stride, he preyed on small sides and big ones alike, both domestically and in Europe. As part of a lethal three-headed attack, Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino combined for a Champions League record 30 goals, a standard only bettered by the 57 tallies the trio registered in the league. Individually, Salah was a menace, registering eight goals in the league last season against the “Big Six” to pair with goals in each leg of the 5-1 Champions League quarterfinal battering of Manchester City.

Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images Sport / Getty

A year on, and the Liverpool talisman’s fortuitous form against big sides has run worryingly dry. With Jurgen Klopp’s charges set for a pivotal Champions League last-16 clash at Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Salah may need to jettison this current hoodoo to replicate last year’s stunning continental run.

Talk of Salah developing into a “flat-track bully” who pillages lesser sides first surfaced following the goalless stalemate at Manchester United towards the end of February. It was one of the Egyptian’s worst matches of the campaign, and for a player as adept at creating chances as Salah, the failure to register a single shot on target stuck out. To his credit, the match at Old Trafford was a cagey affair short on opportunities for either side, though for the 26-year-old, it marked the latest match against the arch-rival sans return. Salah has yet to score or assist against United.

That’s now one goal in eight matches against the “Big Six” this season, a penalty in the 5-1 bludgeoning of Arsenal where one of the pitch-side stewards at Anfield would have been even money to score. It’s become a concerning trend.

Add this to matches against direct rivals like Everton, and in Europe against continental heavyweights, and Salah’s been firing blanks. In 14 matches against the “Big Six,” local rivals Everton, and in the Champions League versus Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, and Bayern Munich, Salah has a pair of goals: the Arsenal penalty, and the deciding marker in a 1-0 victory over Napoli at Anfield.

Salah missed two massive chances last weekend in the 0-0 draw with Everton that saw Manchester City vault the Reds atop the Premier League table, and according to Klopp, the jewel of Liverpool’s attacking crown has created expectations that are near-impossible to replicate. “He has an unbelievable record, that’s all. His goals brought us where we are – not only (his goals), but a big part of it,” the manager said following the Merseyside derby draw. “But as a manager I’m more than used to that, that players don’t score all the time, so that’s how it is.”

OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty

It hasn’t always been this way for Salah. On the contrary, he’s been stellar against marquee opponents, recording four goals and three assists against Italian behemoths Juventus and Napoli while in Serie A, and having a hand in 16 goals in 28 matches against England’s best prior to this season. Salah has 64 goals since returning to England, and on his current clip, is in the running to become the first Liverpool player to register 30 goals in successive campaigns since Robbie Fowler.

The fact that only Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Krzysztof Piatek have more league tallies than Salah in Europe’s top-five leagues this season is enough to sabotage any featherbrained talk of him being a one-season wonder.

Still, Salah has managed just 56 touches in the opposition box against Liverpool’s top-six foes in the league, 21 of which came against Arsenal alone, and in the first leg against Bayern, managed just two efforts, one of which missed the target. And while there’s a fundamental interrelationship between facing greater challenges against improved opponents, Salah is in a funk against a tier of clubs Liverpool aspire to be part of.

If the Reds are to match last season’s Champions League run and end a 29-year wait for English honors, they’ll need their celebrated star to be at his best against the best. No time like the present.

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