His left shoulder in a sling, Mohamed Salah stood in a line at the airport in Kyiv with the rest of Liverpool’s disappointed players as they made their way back from the Champions League final last year.
Heads were down. No one really wanted to talk. It was a fairly melancholic scene.
Salah had more reason to be angry than anyone.
Toward the end of the first half of the match against Real Madrid the previous night, Salah had been wrestled to the ground by Sergio Ramos and ended up spraining ligaments in his shoulder. A tearful Salah was forced to come off , with the score 0-0, and Liverpool went on to lose 3-1.
It was an unfair way for the best year of Salah’s career to finish. He, like his teammates, didn’t want the journey to end like that.
“There were a lot of different emotions in our head, obviously,” Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp said this week as he recalled the journey home from Kyiv. “But the plan was, we come again. That we will be there again.”
Somehow, Liverpool is there again, heading back to the final of the biggest club competition in world soccer — this time against English rival Tottenham in Madrid on Saturday.
It might not be against Madrid — and Ramos — but Salah has gotten his chance for redemption.
Things are slightly different for the Egypt forward this time, though.
No longer is he the standout name on the Liverpool team sheet, unlike this time last year when his 44 goals in 52 games established him not only as the team’s star player but one of the most coveted in the world.
He has been upstaged this season by defender Virgil van Dijk, English soccer’s player of the year; Sadio Mane, the Senegal forward who has enjoyed easily the most prolific season of his career with 22 Premier League goals; even Liverpool’s lauded full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, who contributed 23 assists between them in the league this season.
They were the four Liverpool players who made it into the Premier League team of the year for the 2018-19 season. Salah’s name was conspicuous by its absence, even though he ended up tied as top scorer with Mane and Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Still, few would bet against Salah making the difference at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday. After all, he is a player who has relished the big occasion in his two years at Liverpool.
One stands out more than any other this season.
Liverpool headed into its last Champions League group game needing to beat Napoli at Anfield to qualify. Salah delivered, scoring a goal that has almost become his trademark as he turned on the edge of the penalty area, danced round another defender and rolled in a finish.
In terms of a “wow” factor, it doesn’t beat his 30-meter blast that sealed a 2-0 win over Chelsea in the Premier League in April, but the goal against Napoli was undoubtedly the most significant of Salah’s 26 for Liverpool this season.
Coming in the Champions League, it also kept alive his dream of avenging that night in Kyiv.
In any other year, scoring 26 goals — and retaining the Golden Boot, or at least a part of it — would count as a successful season. But Salah set the bar so high in his debut season at Anfield that his output this time around feels slightly underwhelming.
Certainly the consistency of his performance levels has oscillated, maybe because Klopp has placed extra emphasis on keeping it tight at the back this season, which means Liverpool hasn’t been in all-out attack mode like for much of 2017-18.
This season, Klopp has sometimes played Salah out of position as a central striker, dropping Roberto Firmino into more of a No. 10 role behind him, and there’s also been less of a surprise factor. Defenders in England, and in Europe, are more aware of the positions he likes to take up and how better to combat them.
Perhaps that is why Mane has been so influential, with opponents having been primarily focused on stopping Salah.
So, Salah goes to Madrid with something of a point to prove.
“I am so happy that I have the chance to play another final. I hope I can play the full game this time,” he told beIN Sports. “I am very excited for that. I hope we can right what happened last season, get a good result, and win the competition.”
Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80