For a player who doesn’t consider himself to be a striker, Mohamed Salah is the envy of many forwards with his scoring record for Liverpool.
“I don’t play No. 9, I play on the wing,” Salah said. “It’s completely different when you play as a winger.”
And yet the Egyptian enters the Champions League final on Saturday with 31 goals in 50 games for this season and as the leading forward in English football.
An impressive goal return but one eclipsed by the true No. 9 that Real Madrid will be turning to for goals in the Stade de France. Karim Benzema’s haul stands at 44 goals, achieved in only 45 club games.
Maybe less can be more.
The showpiece climax to the European club season could well be determined by who is less fatigued after a two-year period of coronavirus-impacted schedules with few significant breaks.
Such is the concern about the workload on players that, as the teams flew into Paris, members of the world players’ union were meeting in the French capital on Thursday to discuss burnout of the biggest stars.
“It’s obviously the time of the year when the players are really focused on winning,” FIFPRO general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said. “I’m sure they are going to get all their energy to play a good match on Saturday but they are going to pay for it eventually. It’s really concerning for us in the moment, the risk of injury now, but also in the long term.”
Benzema, who at 34 is five years older than Salah, has only taken to the field 52 times since August for Madrid and France.
Adding on their African Cup of Nations trips in January, Salah and Senegal forward Sadio Mane are both set to play their 70th games of the season.
Liverpool has played every game possible this season and every one has had something at stake. The Premier League went down to the wire – with Manchester City winning the title by one point on Sunday – and Liverpool won the FA Cup the previous weekend and the League Cup in February.
Madrid had the luxury of winning the Spanish league with four games to spare a month ago. Carlo Ancelotti’s hopes of a domestic cup ended in a quarter-final loss in the Copa del Rey in February.
“I don’t think we’ll struggle. We have had a full week’s preparation,” Liverpool defender Andy Robertson said. “They have had a bit more relaxed preparation. They wrapped up the league ... and have been able to relax and not play as many games at the highest tempo. We wanted to fight for everything and knew what it would do to our bodies.”
Jurgen Klopp is still chasing a treble with Liverpool. Publicly, at least, Ancelotti isn’t talking about trying to exploit any tiredness in the Liverpool squad.
“If we’re talking about a physical perspective, we’re playing against a side which is among the best in the world in that regard,” Ancelotti said. “Add to that immense individual quality, a strong attack and good organization. I don’t think the physical side of things will determine the result, it will be important but there are lots of other elements to assess.”
Such as Madrid’s power of recovery.
The record 13-time European champions were facing elimination in the round of 16 before two of Benzema’s 15 continental goals this season turned around the game against Paris Saint-Germain. It took an equalizer with 10 minutes to go against Chelsea to stay in the quarter-finals before ousting the defending champions in extra time. Madrid entered the 90th minute against Manchester City heading out in the semi-finals until Rodrygo was the saviour again with two goals capping another incredible comeback.
It makes Liverpool’s route through the knockout phase past Inter Milan, Benfica and Villarreal look relatively smooth to set up a reunion with Madrid after being beaten in the 2018 final.
That was a game when Salah was forced off injured in the first half. While he remains at the peak of his scoring powers, what became of the man of the match in Kyiv?
Gareth Bale’s goals won Madrid’s last European Cup with two memorable strikes, but the chances of him playing on Saturday are slim. The forward is one player who can only be frustrated by his limited playing time rather than excess workload over the past season. The world’s most expensive player when signed by Madrid in 2013, Bale has only played 13 times this season – six of which were for Wales – after being left out in the cold as his Madrid contract ends.
For the third consecutive year, UEFA was forced to change the location of the final. Not this time owing to the pandemic but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which saw St. Petersburg stripped of the hosting.
It’s a return to Paris for Liverpool where it beat Madrid in the 1981 final when it was just the European Cup still.
The teams meet again at the end of the 30th season of the Champions League – a competition Madrid sought to destroy a year ago by splitting to form a Super League.
Liverpool was quick to back away from the rebellion, while Madrid still clings to the dream of breaking from UEFA.
It could lead to awkward conversations when Madrid President Florentino Perez and UEFA counterpart Aleksander Ceferin meet at the stadium.
The conversation, though, that many stars would hope they have is about easing the burden on players. Even as those players try to crown the season by lifting another trophy.