Even on his bad days Mohamed Salah is capable of something quite brilliant and he duly delivered against Red Bull Salzburg to guide Liverpool into the Champions League last 16.
The Egypt international missed a hat-trick of chances he would usually put away but scored an outrageously good goal from the narrowest of angles to secure a 2-0 win in Austria as Jurgen Klopp’s side topped Group E.
After a testing first half – not withstanding two missed Salah sitters – Naby Keita put the Reds ahead against his former club, with another ex-Salzburg forward Sadio Mane providing the assist.
But Salah showed his quality and mental resilience to keep keep making the runs after a third simple chance went begging and was rewarded when goalkeeper Cican Stankovic came rushing out and he rounded him to roll in a curling shot from out wide which virtually brushed the near post on its way to nestling just inside the far upright.
It almost defied the laws of geometry as, from barely eight yards from the byline and probably 20 yards out, the ball seemed to be spinning away from goal from the moment it left his weaker right foot.
Even Salah himself appeared surprised by the outcome as he was mobbed by jubilant team-mates, who had endured a more difficult night than they would have wanted up to that point.
For the third successive season the fate of the defending champions, also finalists in 2018, came down to their last group match but they needed only a draw to progress on this occasion – whereas 12 months ago it was a victory.
Keita’s unexpected inclusion meant Liverpool did not have the traditionally more solid midfield usually reserved for such occasions and it led to a chaotic game which played into the hosts’ hands.
Alisson Becker made three saves in the opening 10 minutes as Salzburg built all the pressure but bizarrely it was Liverpool who should have scored the goals as Salah made a mess of two chances.
He shot straight at the goalkeeper with his weaker right foot when Maximilian Wober failed to deal with Dejan Lovren’s long ball and then dragged wide with his left when Keita teed him up with a square pass.
Salzburg’s goalscoring sensation Erling Braut Haaland had also been denied by Alisson before he miscontrolled when he had the chance to run clean through after Keita lost possession higher up the pitch.
When Salah turned provider for Keita on a late first-half counter-attack the midfielder had a shot blocked from close range.
Salah’s fortunes got no better after the break as within the the first five minutes he lifted over Mane’s pass from eight yards and then was beaten to Roberto Firmino’s through-ball by the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Cican Stankovic.
Lovren’s luck was worse as a knee injury saw him replaced by Joe Gomez but Liverpool’s fortune was changing and it was the two former Salzburg players who made the breakthrough, Mane crossing for Keita to head into an open net after Stankovic had rushed out wide in an attempt to stop the Senegal international.
Barely 60 seconds later the contest was effectively over as Salah produced his moment of magic, delivering the harshest of punishments after Jerome Ongunene failed to deal with Jordan Henderson’s ball over the top.
Still chances fell to Salah, again shooting at Stankovic and wide, but crucially Liverpool also kept a clean sheet.
Haaland – who had predicted he would score a hat-trick in a 3-1 win – was substituted with 25 minutes to go. Despite 28 goals in his 21 previous appearances, he had drawn his first Champions League blank.
The very best do it when it counts. Liverpool and Salah did – and have done many times in the past – but the 19-year-old, linked with Manchester United among others, has plenty of time to acquire that aptitude.
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