By Phil McNulty-Chief football writer
Mohamed Salah had already placed himself in Liverpool’s record books before a driving, darting run and angled finish for his second goal in Sunday’s thrilling 2-2 draw with Tottenham at Anfield was likened to a Lionel Messi moment.
When manager Jurgen Klopp’s £34.3m summer signing from Roma scored his first, he became the fastest Liverpool player to reach 20 Premier League goals. He achieved it in 25 games, two games quicker than Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge.
The 25-year-old has had a stunning impact since arriving at Anfield but this humble superstar, who is idolised in Egypt, has showed grit and determination to become a superstar.
‘Down to earth and quiet’ – Egypt’s modest icon
Salah’s status as a national hero in Egypt was already secure before his two goals, including a late penalty, in the win over Congo in Alexandria last October secured his country a place in the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
Salah’s brilliance, modesty and determination never to forget his roots had long made him an iconic figure and a source of national pride.
A school in the city of Basyoun and streets have been named in his honour. He also continues to retain strong links with the town of Nagrig in Gharbia in the north of the country. He is a regular benefactor and paid for a community gym as well as an all-weather pitch where future stars can hone their skills.
In January, Salah was received by Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Minister for Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel Aziz to be praised for his achievements and thanked for his contribution of 5m Egyptian pounds (£200,000) to the Tahiya Masr (‘Long Live Egypt’) fund to strengthen the economy.
Salah also donated 30,000 euros to the Association of Veteran Egyptian Players and when offered a luxury villa by a businessman as a reward for his winning goal against Congo in the World Cup qualifier, he rejected the offer and asked for the money to be donated to his home town.
It has also been a help that Salah played in Cairo for Arab Contractors (El Mokawloon) rather than either of the city’s bitter rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek, allowing him to act as a unifying force among Egypt’s fanatical football following.
When he was 14 he travelled more than four hours by bus, sometimes changing five times, from his home to train with Arab Contractors, then took the same return journey.
Back then he was the youth team’s first-choice left-back before his dedication, ability and magical left foot found its natural attacking home.
But despite his iconic standing, he is a low-profile superstar.
“He is a very down to earth, quiet footballer and person. He barely interacts with the media in Egypt or abroad,” Egyptian football expert Marwan Saeed told BBC Sport.
“He uses social media to a moderate level. He doesn’t like to talk much and that is a good thing as we see many stars saying things they shouldn’t on TV or posting things they shouldn’t.
“Mo got married at a young age, is now blessed with a baby girl and keeps away from the spotlight.
“We have streets and institutions named after him here after his heroics, especially after doing the unthinkable and taking ‘The Pharaohs’ back to the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Egypt is blessed with the gift that is Mohamed Salah and he is a gift that keeps on giving. Long may that continue.”
The view that Salah will not get carried away with the current euphoria surrounding him is echoed by Murat Yakin, the man who coached him after he left Egypt in 2012 to pursue his dream in Europe.
Yakin, now coach at Grasshopper Club Zurich, was at Basel when Salah came to prominence by scoring in home and away victories against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the 2013-14 Champions League group stage – a precursor to an £11m move to Stamford Bridge in January 2014 that left Liverpool frustrated after they had also agreed a deal.
“Mo is very humble and modest. He is really down to earth and also sympathetic off the pitch. But on the pitch he is a leader, smart and aggressive in a good way,” Yakin told BBC Sport.
‘They just cannot stop him’ – Liverpool’s latest superstar
When Philippe Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona in a £142m deal in the January transfer window, there was a void was to be filled and Salah has stepped forward.
From his instinctive finish following Ederson’s poor clearance in the victory over runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City to the slaloming audacity of his second goal against Spurs, Salah has swiftly become the touchstone for fans craving a star of genuine world class.
When Salah finally arrived at Anfield last summer after leaving Chelsea for Fiorentina and then Roma, it was to relatively little fanfare.
So has his success come as a surprise?
Yakin, who was coach at Basel between October 2012 and May 2014, said after Salah scored in the 2013 Europa League quarter-final win against Tottenham: “If Mohamed could score as well, he would not be here any more.”
He says now: “At this time it was like that, but Mo is so smart and his will to learn and work at his game is fantastic. With constant working he is getting better and better.”
The idea that Liverpool had simply signed a player who was not good enough at Chelsea was swept away by his early performances – but the biggest revelation has been Salah’s ruthlessness in front of goal.
“He has surprised me and I’m not basing that on what he did or didn’t achieve at Chelsea. It is more on what I saw at Roma,” former Liverpool midfielder Jan Molby told BBC Sport.
“I saw Roma in Champions League matches and he was a typical, lively, full of energy footballer with no end product.
“I always felt he was going to be one of those generally frustrating players with everything in his locker. To an extent he gave me that impression in the first two or three weeks at Liverpool. Not any more.
“He does what he does. Everybody knows what he wants to do but they can’t stop it. Think Arjen Robben.
“In a very simple and effective way he is now among the most prolific footballers in the world.”
So why did it not work at Chelsea?
Salah mustered just 530 minutes of league action over six starts and seven appearances as a substitute in more than a year at Stamford Bridge after his move from Basel.
Footage of Salah’s brief Chelsea career hints at what Liverpool fans have seen this season, a composed left-foot finish when played through in a 6-0 win against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge and a powerful drive at home to Stoke.
It was, however, an unfulfilling period before he left on loan for Fiorentina in February 2015.
Salah was labelled a Premier League failure – but further investigation suggests, while still maturing as a player, he may also have been fighting against a tactical peculiarity of life at Chelsea.
And he was not alone. The list of those who did not excel in that period is an illustrious one.
“The right wing was a tough one for Chelsea. Juan Cuadrado played there. Andre Schurrle played there. You had Kevin de Bruyne trying to play there. You had Marko Marin trying to play there and you had Mo Salah trying to play there,” former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin told BBC Sport.
“They were all there in a relatively short period of time and these are big, big names.
“Generally you had a settled side with Hazard on the left, then there was the Brazilian Oscar more central.
“There were a lot of reasons, one of which was the style and system that was being played at Chelsea. It was working perfectly well and remember the season they let Kevin de Bruyne go they won the Premier League.
“Chelsea were not daft. It was tough for Salah but there were also world-class players who were struggling to nail down that position.
“There was nothing wrong with what Salah was doing at Chelsea and everybody I spoke to about him said his attitude was absolutely perfect.
“Salah was younger. He wasn’t quite as strong as he is now. He’s matured. I suspect he would have matured perfectly well at Chelsea had he been given the opportunities, but over the period would he have got those opportunities? Probably not.”
The quintet of Cuadrado, Salah, Schurrle, Marin and De Bruyne made a meagre total of 79 league appearances, scoring 14 goals – so perhaps Liverpool’s latest superstar was a victim of circumstance.
“I think Mo is a really sensitive player who needs to have time and a good feeling from the trainer and the staff. In Chelsea, everything was probably too early for him as well as too fast and too big,” Yakin says.
“He always had his mentality to achieve his goals. He already had his qualities when he went to Italy but he was growing with that Italian school, tactically and as a human.”
Real reports? ‘Don’t accept less than £120m’
Egyptian Football Association president Hany Abo Rida may have set alarm bells ringing at Liverpool with his claim that Real Madrid will move for Salah in the summer – but the player’s low-key approach and modest attitude suggests there are no causes for immediate concern.
Salah is settled in England with his wife and young daughter, appreciating his new life at Anfield while keeping away from the spotlight off the pitch.
It is inevitable his deeds will attract interest, interest that could be strengthened if he performs well for Egypt in this summer’s World Cup – but former coach Yakin insists there is no rush.
“When you are happy at a club and having a good time with everything and everyone there is no reason to change the club. And also he has a long time to come – we will see what the future will bring,” he said.
“He is strong mentally and has the focus on football. He is not interested in everything else.”
Molby believes Salah will already be on the radar of Europe’s elite – but believes he now also carries a price tag well in excess of £100m.
His record tally of goals is all the more remarkable given he has scored them from a wide midfield position, rather than a central striking role.
“You would be disappointed if the best clubs in the world were not looking,” says Molby. “They have to be. He can’t be doing what he is doing and people say: ‘Don’t worry nobody else knows about it’.
“I think he’s in that top bracket now because of the end product. There are more and more stats in football now and his figures are incredible as a wide striker.
“He’s been an incredible bargain. I can only compare him to Ousmane Dembele, who is slightly younger but certainly doesn’t have what Mo Salah has in his locker – and Barcelona paid £135.5m for him.
“And don’t forget you could probably get away with playing him in four positions – either side, through the middle and just behind the striker and he would be just as effective in all of them.
“To make it awkward, I would say a minimum of £120m. I think I, and a lot of Liverpool fans, could live with Coutinho going but if Liverpool ever considered selling Salah he would be a real loss that would leave a gaping hole.”
Liverpool hope it is a hole they do not have to fill for years to come.