Sift through the various national newspaper analyses of Tottenham’s draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu at Tuesday night and there is a consistent narrative: Spurs have made it onto Europe’s top table. Thanks to a game-plan widely lauded as a ‘Mauricio Pochettino masterclass’, Spurs went toe-to-toe with the European champions in a performance that served as a ringing endorsement of their burgeoning reputation.
Spurs can’t dine on their endeavours in the Spanish capital for too long, of course, as this weekend brings with it another robust examination of their credentials as Premier League contenders. For it’s the visit of Liverpool, Spurs’ bogey side. Tottenham have failed to beat the Reds since 2012 in a game in which Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon found the net.
Same Tormentor, Different Team
This time around, it’s a new starring cast and a new venue in Wembley, but Liverpool remain the antagonists in this particular story and they will travel to London on Sunday with a former Spurs tormentor in tow: Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger, who has hit the ground running at Anfield following his £36.9m signing from Roma, may not have the most obvious connection to Tottenham, but their paths have crossed on more than one occasion in the past.
It was the winger who terrorised the Spurs defence when he helped Basel knock Andre Villas-Boas’ Premier League side out of the Europa League in 2013. Then a precocious, electrifying 20-year-old, Salah dazzled and bewildered a Spurs team containing curious remnants of a recent past: Clint Dempsey, Jan Holtby and William Gallas.
Salah, not sporting the gloriously unkempt afro of nowadays, caught the eye that night and was at it again a year later, as he helped Fiorentina vanquish a team still in the nascent stages of the Pochettino project. Part of a decisive La Viola attack also featuring Mario Gomez, Salah – on loan at the Italian club from Chelsea at this stage – spent the night leaving Ben Davies eating dust in another intoxicating display of speed and incisive running.
Back to the Future
Much has happened in the two-and-a-half years since Spurs’ demoralising exit at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. But the return of Mohamed Salah has a fascinatingly cyclical element to it. Salah’s goals and ingenuity contributed to the demise of Andre Villas-Boas at White Hart Lane, while he stunted the progress in Mauricio Pochettino’s first season by ensuring Spurs didn’t advance past the Europa League last-32, regardless of where that particular competition may have been in the club’s list of priorities.
It’s been an eventful couple of years for Salah, too. Deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, that productive loan spell at Fiorentina was followed by an even better one at Roma, which culminated in a permanent move to the Giallorossi. During his time at the Stadio Olimpico, Salah established himself as one of Serie A’s most exciting and effective attackers, scoring 34 goals in 83 appearances as he catapulted himself into Jurgen Klopp’s consciousness.
Hitting the Ground Running
Although there was scepticism over how Salah would fit in a Liverpool side already boasting an embarrassment of riches in Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, the Egyptian has shattered expectations of a transitional period. There hasn’t been the slightest whiff of a player struggling to re-adjust to the climes and rigours of Premier League football. It’s been quite the opposite, in fact, scoring on his debut against Watford and continuing by and large in the same manner.
Running riot in the 4-0 win over Arsenal, Salah scored a crucial equaliser against Burnley and popped up with a double in the merciless destruction of Maribor on Tuesday, while finding the time to send his country to their first World Cup in 28 years thanks to a nerveless stoppage-time penalty kick against Congo.
Spurring his Team On
At Wembley on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp will be hoping for that same devastating combination of killer instinct and composure, especially with Mané ruled out. When the sides last met, at Anfield in February, Pochettino showed some tactical naiveté by playing a ludicrously high defensive line, playing into Liverpool’s hands as Mané punished them with a quick-fire brace.
This time around it’ll likely be different. Teams who defend deeply tend to cause Liverpool problems, but Klopp will hope that the creative personnel he has at his disposal can unlock the Spurs rearguard once more. Salah, with his movement off the ball and intelligence on it, will be key to achieving that.
Intriguingly, Salah may find himself up against Ben Davies again, should the defender recover from the illness which ruled him out against Real Madrid. The Wales international has improved drastically since that hellish winter’s night in Florence spent trying to track Salah. Even with Davies’ rise to prominence, though, you feel as though Salah, in his current form, could have a say in the outcome of Sunday’s clash.
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