How was he allowed to slip away? As Mo Salah prepares to face his old club, it’s a question Liverpool and Chelsea fans will ask before tonight’s blockbuster.
Salah could have joined Liverpool in January 2014 but their refusal to bid more than £12million allowed Chelsea to beat them. Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool’s manager, was furious, but within 12 months it appeared his club had got off lightly.
After 19 appearances — nine as a substitute — and two goals, Salah was gone. The Egyptian spent his time at Stamford Bridge on the periphery but the player who will stand in front of them tonight has seen his value triple in four years and is now the Premier League’s leading scorer. Chelsea fans will wonder why it went wrong. Liverpool fans count their blessings after signing him for £34m from Roma this summer.
So what did Chelsea miss? The question was put to Jurgen Klopp at Melwood yesterday afternoon but, in a flash, his booming voice filled the room with a short, sharp answer: ‘Nothing!’ he said, before breaking into laughter.
Klopp has been a fan of Salah ever since his Borussia Dortmund faced Basle and has charted his progress all the way through his days in Serie A. He has no concern about what happened during his time at Chelsea but knows his No 11 is ready to wreak havoc.
‘He was young at Chelsea,’ said Klopp, who urged his side to use tonight’s match as a chance restore belief after letting a 3-0 lead slip in Seville this week. ‘Players develop at this age, especially if you can use them often. I don’t know with Mo.
‘I didn’t see him playing at Chelsea. I saw him at Basel then he went off my radar. Then I saw him again at Fiorentina. I didn’t see his few games at Chelsea, it was 19 or something I read. That’s usually not a bad number for a very young player in their first year at Chelsea. But he wanted to play more.
‘I don’t know anything about why he left. I was not interested. It was just the situation. If he had played better at Chelsea, we would not have him, so I’m happy.’
Salah has exploded like a starburst, his nine goals in 12 Premier League games stamping him as the signing of the season, and Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s manager, will leave nothing to chance in his preparations as he tries to block the flying forward.
‘He was very young and now he developed a lot,’ Conte said. ‘He’s a technical player, but at the same time is very fast, very strong, very good in one v one. We must pay great attention. They have great organisation, especially offensively. They are very dangerous.’
Dangerous is a word Conte has used a lot in the last 24 hours, given that Chelsea’s flight home from Azerbaijan needed two attempts to land at Gatwick because of high winds. The delay meant Conte and the majority of his players did not get into bed until 6am on Thursday morning after beating Qarabag 4-0.
‘In these circumstances you feel a bit afraid, a bit scared,’ Conte said. ‘To get to your house at 6am is not simple. To have only one day to prepare a big game, especially to have only one day to rest, is not right. But at the same time we must be focused on the game. Don’t find excuses.’
Klopp has noted with interest how Conte has made a point of explaining how little time Chelsea have had to prepare for a game that neither side can afford to lose with four points between second and seventh. So was there any sympathy? He waited for a moment before finding the words.
‘I really get what Antonio is talking about,’ said Klopp. ‘I heard about it, but maybe he forgot they had the best Christmas schedule last year. I really think recovery for a team is very important and he is right, but it will not have influence on this game. Maybe the next one, that’s possible. But not this.’