Mohamed Salah has to upset Liverpool team-mate Sadio Mane to put record straight on ‘shocking’ decision

For 15 years Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have dominated European football. Usurping Ronaldino and Kaka as the planet’s finest, between them they have won all but one Ballon d’Or since 2008. Yet 2022 looks set to be the year the legendary duo’s juggernaut ends.

By their standards, the pair are enduring disappointing seasons at Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United respectively. The Argentine has scored just seven goals for the Ligue 1 giants, with only two coming in domestic league action. The Portuguese has fared better, netting 18 times, but he already knows he will end the season trophyless at Old Trafford.

Last season, on the books of Barcelona and Juventus, they both suffered premature European exits to ensure that neither would compete in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since 2005. With PSG and Manchester United suffering round-of-16 exits themselves this month, they are both missing from the final eight again this year.

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Aged 34 and 37 respectively, Messi’s and Ronaldo’s best days are admittedly behind them and while they will dream of further glory before hanging up their boots, most notably in what is likely to be their final World Cup appearances in Qatar this winter, the gradual deterioration of the sublime pair has suddenly become more noticeable.

As a result, the best player in the world tag is up for grabs. And while the likes of Kylian Mbappe look set to be the future dominant force in Europe, Messi and Ronaldo’s decline has created a vacuum for someone else to step forward and take the mantle in the interim.

Along with Robert Lewandowski at Bayern Munich, Mohamed Salah currently looks a runaway favourite. The Egyptian has been the best player in the world this season, scoring 28 goals and recording 10 assists as Liverpool go in search of an unprecedented quadruple.

With a League Cup winner’s medal to his name already, Salah will be hoping to add Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup glory come May. Win either of the two major prizes and the Ballon d’Or for 2022 should be his.

He was arguably just as deadly on the field last year, but the Reds’ lack of honors cost him, with Salah still bemused at his subsequent seventh-placed finish, calling it ‘shocking’. Now he’s looking to set that record straight.

Yet a look at his recent displays and he is perhaps not enjoying his best form. From his 28 goals and 10 assists, 17 and eight were recorded from his first 18 appearances of the season, coming at a time when the 29-year-old was producing his best football and scoring virtually every game, with an Old Trafford hat- trick a particular highlight.

But since autumn turned to winter, such returns have decreased. Totaling 36 appearances in total so far, Salah has recorded 11 goals and two assists from his second half of the season to date. This is despite the Egyptian currently taking marginally more shots, with his current total of him at 144 overall, having taken 67 from his first 18 appearances.

Scoring less despite more shots, Salah’s shot accuracy has inevitably decreased from 55% at the halfway point to 47% heading into the March international break as a result. Meanwhile, he is currently scoring on average every 5.14 shots as opposed to every 3.94.

Don’t mistake this for criticism – it isn’t. Salah is still one of the very best forwards around and while not currently as prolific as at his lethal best of him, he is still scoring goals, too, netting five times from 10 appearances since his return from the Africa Cup of Nations last month. Yet three of those goals have been penalties, with such numbers perhaps clouding his recent run from him in front of goal compared to earlier standards.

There are a number of reasons for this slight decline and Liverpool should not be concerned regardless. Salah was scoring at such a rate of knots during the first half of the season that it would be impossible for any player to maintain such superhuman standards over a whole campaign, while he has recently been troubled by an ankle injury.

Meanwhile, the halfway point of his season to date falls in December, a month when contract negotiations with the Reds reportedly broke down, with uncertainty, scrutiny and speculation regarding his future growing stronger ever since. As for his returns since the Africa Cup of Nations, it is possible he is suffering from fatigue or an AFCON hangover, having had to play extra-time four times in just 11 days out in Cameroon, before losing the final on penalties to Senegal without even being able to take his own spot-kick.

As Egypt captain, it’s understandable that such a loss would hurt him more than most, with the forward feeling intense responsibility with the weight of his homeland on his shoulders, while only Salah himself will know his own feelings regarding his Liverpool future and its impact on him as a result.

Whatever the reason, you can make your own minds up. Yet the March international break could have come at the perfect time for the forward to ‘revive’ his fortunes and take another step towards a potential Ballon d’Or win.

Having lost to Senegal in the AFCON final, Egypt are currently facing them again in the final round of African qualification for this winter’s World Cup, knowing only one of the two nations will progress to the finals tournament in Qatar. Facing off in Cairo on Friday, it is the Pharaohs who boast a 1-0 advantage after Saliou Ciss diverted Salah’s shot off the crossbar into his own net.

Locking horns again on Tuesday, this time in Dakar in Senegal, Salah will be desperate to lead his country to a second successive World Cup, having scored the goal that saw them qualify for the first time in 28 years to book their place at the 2018 tournament. Meanwhile, with his Sergio Ramos-inflicted shoulder injury limiting his impact in Russia as Egypt suffered a group-stage exit, the Reds’ Egyptian King certainly has some unfinished business on football’s biggest stage.

See off Senegal – and club-mate Sadio Mane – to qualify for Qatar and Salah will have been able to put his AFCON final demons to bed by claiming revenge of sorts. By booking a place at this year’s World Cup, he’d be given a chance to make up for his limited contributions in 2018, too.

It was October 2017 when the forward last fired his country to a World Cup when he scored a last-minute penalty against Congo. Coming in his maiden season at Liverpool, he had scored six goals for the Reds prior to that decisive strike, with four coming in the Premier League.

Finishing the season with a record-breaking 44 goals, his Egypt penalty was the turning point that sent Salah towards such greatness and he hasn’t looked back since. Now he’ll be hoping history can repeat itself to bolster his Ballon d’Or hopes and rediscover his early-season form in the process.

He is the Premier League’s leading goalscorer and has already won the League Cup, but so much more could follow. Be it Premier League, Champions League or FA Cup glory or captaining his country at the World Cup, 2022 could be a career-defining year for the Egyptian for both club and country.

Mohamed Salah is the best player in the world and now he has the stage to prove it once and for all.

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