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From great to the greatest
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2019

Predicting is very difficult, especially if it's about the future. Jokes aside, if you must go out on a limb, you're best bet would be that Egypt's Mohamed Salah will be crowned the world's best footballer in 2019.
Salah came third last year and, barring serious injury or a shocking drop in form, he could leapfrog to the front of the pack. He looks set for another remarkable Liverpool season. After a slow start he has found his scoring boots, bagging 14 goals in the last 18 games. He's also contributed seven assists. At this rate, he is on track to equal or even surpass his stunning first season with Liverpool when he won the Premier League golden boot with 32 goals.
But should Salah become the world's best, the superlative comes with a proviso: all must go according to the script. That means not only must Salah keep up his individual feats. His club and country must shine as well.
That might have to mean Liverpool winning the Premier League, the Champions League and Egypt the Africa Cup of Nations. And Salah playing a big part in all three.
It would be a dream treble but, in reality, just a dream. No matter how good Liverpool and Egypt are, it would be nearly impossible to complete this trio of triumphs.
At the same time, it would do Salah no good if his club and country came in as bridesmaids or less in all three tournaments. That would not be good enough for a champion player who seeks the title of best on the planet.
A more realistic conclusion is one or possibly two out of three. Liverpool are in decent position to be crowned Premier League champions, the Champions League is up for grabs and host Egypt should reach at least the semi-finals of the ACN. These semi-scenarios are more likely and certainly within reach. It is also an end result that, if it materializes, should bag for Salah the title of the greatest.
As of writing, Liverpool are the league leaders with 57 points, four points clear of Manchester City after 22 games and 16 remaining.
Although the race is tight, Liverpool look like they will take some stopping. Manager Jurgen Klopp has blended defensive solidity in the shape of defender Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson, with their ferociously threatening attack of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane and the steadying hand of midfielder James Milner, along with key additions Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Anfield has had false dawns before. Steven Gerrard's catastrophic slip against Chelsea in 2014. There was also their outstanding campaign in 2009 when they lost only two league games but still ended up in second place, four points behind champions Manchester United.
But this year, Liverpool's stars are aligned and it appears that their 29-year-old wait for league glory could end.
To be sure, it is not a done deal by any stretch. In almost any other year, Liverpool would be a certainty to win the Premier League on the number of points they have amassed so far. But this is not just any year. This is a season in which the points totals for the teams in second and third – Manchester City and Tottenham -- are unprecedented.
A team with total points as big as Liverpool's could usually expect to have a lead in double figures at this point. But with a gap of only four points to second-placed Manchester City, Liverpool do not have that luxury. Even fourth-placed Chelsea, 10 points behind Liverpool, cannot be written off.
No team has ever not won the league from where Liverpool currently are. But it would appear that every week Liverpool will have to win. Actually, they might need over 100 points this season which has never happened before.
Should Liverpool trip up in the Premier League, there is always the Champions League where they reached the final last year before going down to Real Madrid.
Liverpool this year are in the last 16 and will face Bayern Munich, second in the Bundesliga, six points off the pace.
The odds are the Reds should bundle Bayern out and enter a quarter-final field that might include bigger and stronger brick walls in the shape of City, Real, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester United and Juventus, always a favourite especially this year with their addition of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pedigree is on Liverpool's side. The Merseyside club have won five European Cups, more than any other English club and surpassed only by Real Madrid and Milan.
Salah (photo: AP)
Liverpool's last taste of the elixir of continental victory was in 2005, so it's about time to uncork the bubbly.
If Liverpool falter in the Champions League, there is always the Africa Cup of Nations. As fate would have it, the tournament is being staged in Egypt, Salah's territory, even though it was not the original venue. Cameroun were stripped of hosting the biennial tournament for failing to meet the organisational requirements of the one-month event. Egypt won the rights to host after a crushing 16-1 vote count against sole contender South Africa, with one abstention.
Lady Luck accompanied Egypt farther as this will be the first Africa Cup expanded from 16 to 24 teams. That increase translates to a more diluted field.
However, the usual African powerhouses will be on show, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, not to mention Egypt's forever North African nemesis Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
Nor should Mauritania, Madagascar and Uganda be overlooked. Minnows in the past, they were last week voted the best three countries on the continent.
Egypt have Africa's number and, as such, this tournament holds the most promise for Salah to come out a team winner. Egypt have won the Africa Cup a record seven times, at one stretch winning three times in a row, another record. They were also in the finals in 2017 before going down to Cameroun.
If Salah is going to become the best player in the world, he must help Liverpool or Egypt or both capture at least one piece of silverware. Single awards might simply not be enough.
When Luka Modric won last year's title as the best, he did it without individual accomplishments. He reached the top because his Real Madrid won the Champions League and Croatia got to the final of the World Cup.
Ronaldo took second in the vote, again without any major achievements of his own, but he had a Champions League medal wrapped around his neck.
Despite winning the African Player of the Year and the Premier League scoring title, two outstanding achievements, Salah could only finish third in the balloting. That should serve as Salah's wake-up call.
Even though last week he won African Player of the Year for the second year running, and even though he is on track to win a second English scoring crown – he is tied with Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for top marksman -- individual singular exploits are not enough. They definitely help but the examples of Modric and Ronaldo are proof of how they were singled out for greatness because they elevated their teams to similar heights.
In team sports, the sum is greater than the parts. If Salah is to reach the pinnacle on the pitch, he must try to lift himself, his club and his country to that mountain peak.
Salah has the ability to do all three. He is a choreography of motion: quick, mobile, hard-working and tactical, with good technique and an eye for goal. He has the speed, dribbling skills, first touch and ball control, as well as an ability to use both his pace and flair on the ball in order to beat opponents, and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
In his attempt to break into the elite club of the world's best, at least Salah will not have to worry about players upstaging him in a World Cup or European Championship; neither are being held in 2019.
But he should beware of Lionel Messi. Barcelona is on track to win La Liga, could take the Champions League and, though they have never done it despite reaching the final twice, Argentina with Messi may finally capture this year's Copa America. Those successes would almost certainly land Messi an unparalleled sixth world's best man.
However, as in Salah's case, Messi's sweep across the board is a very high bar to cross.
The world will not need to wait too long before knowing who its king of football is. The last game of the season in the Premier League is on 12 May, the final of the Champions League is slated for 1 June, the Copa America 7 July, and the curtain comes down on the Africa Cup of Nations on 13 July.
Shortly after mid-year, after all is done and the dust has settled, we will know who is the world's best player. Maybe he shall be in our midst.


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