Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

Mohamed Salah was the star attraction against Roma, but the Egyptian had an impressive supporting cast. (Reuters)
Updated 25 April 2018
0

Liverpool's unfashionable midfield the support act for Mohamed Salah

  • Egyptian now has a remarkable 43 goals for the season
  • But he was backed up by a combative midfield trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum

LIVERPOOL: When Liverpool was last making a charge at the Champions League title, its midfield had legitimate claims at being among the best in the world.
It was 2008 and Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano made up an engine room that had a bit of everything: Energy, vision, work rate, goals.
Fast forward a decade and Liverpool is back among Europe's elite with a rather more unfashionable and functional central midfield that is proving to be just as effective.
Mohamed Salah naturally hogged the headlines after scoring two goals and setting up two others in Liverpool's 5-2 win over Roma in the first leg of the semifinals on Tuesday. That made it 43 goals for the season for the Egypt winger, who has fast become the darling of Anfield and an icon back in his native country.
Yet Salah couldn't operate so effectively, and with such freedom, without the tireless and unselfish work of Liverpool's central-midfield three, which against Roma mainly comprised of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum.
That's the same Henderson who is often castigated and held up as a poster boy for the England national team's midfield woes in recent years. The same Milner who is now retired from England duty and has a parody Twitter account — "Boring James Milner" — named after him with 612,000 followers. The same Wijnaldum who was relegated from the Premier League with Newcastle two years ago.
This trio dominated the game against Roma, getting the better of Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman — arguably more illustrious counterparts — and laying the platform for Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to run amok further forward.
"We didn't give any space away," Klopp said, with a nod to his midfield. "We controlled the game in a very nice football way."
That was often an accusation against Klopp, that his midfield couldn't control games because the team was too gung-ho in attack, leaving Liverpool's defense exposed.
This time last year, Philippe Coutinho was playing as a deep-lying central midfielder. The Brazil playmaker played lethal through-balls and scored some high-quality goals from long range, but didn't have the discipline and awareness of a natural center midfielder.
Coutinho's departure to Barcelona in January robbed Liverpool of one of world soccer's most creative minds but has invariably helped to shore up Klopp's midfield. The midfield now consists of three of Emre Can, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain — all hard-working players who chip in with goals.
It's no surprise that Liverpool's defensive record has vastly improved as a result, especially with Virgil van Dijk a commanding presence at center back since joining for $99 million — a world-record fee for a defender — in January.
Milner, meanwhile, has emerged as something of a cult hero at Anfield — and an unlikely record-breaker in the Champions League.
When the 32-year-old Milner sent in a corner that was headed in by Firmino for Liverpool's fifth goal against Roma, he became the first player to have nine assists in a single Champions League campaign.
That sums him up, really, a player content to leave the glory to others. Milner was appreciated at Manchester City for his selflessness and versatility but he has blossomed further since his 2015 move to Liverpool, where he now is an out-and-out central midfielder after filling in at left back for most of last season.
Henderson is fully fit and is developing into a leader, albeit a more unassuming and less dynamic one than previous captain Gerrard. Wijnaldum has a knack of scoring big goals at Anfield and rarely lets Liverpool down, as shown against Roma when he replaced the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 18th minute and slotted straight into his role.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana potentially out for the rest of the season and Can also injured, Klopp is short of midfield cover outside of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum for Liverpool's final three Premier League games and, potentially, two more games in the Champions League.
Keeping Salah, Mane and Firmino fit has always been Klopp's priority this season. He'll be wrapping his three remaining senior midfielders in cotton for the final month now, too.


Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

Updated 14 August 2018
0

Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

  • Young Falcons hopeful of a semifinal spot.
  • Under-23 players keen on making a name for themselves in Indonesia.

JAKARTA: There is a widely held belief that to succeed in sport, you must start early.
Officials from the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee will be hoping it rings true this month as the Kingdom’s Under-23 football team prepares to prematurely kick-off its Asian Games campaign this afternoon in Jakarta, three days before the continent’s largest multi-sport competition officially begins.
Similar to the Olympics, the football tournament starts before the opening ceremony and finishes on the competition’s final day, Sept. 2. The fledgling Young Falcons face Iran today at the 28,000-capacity Wibawa Mukti Stadium in the Indonesian capital.
The Saudi NOC have brought a delegation of 169 athletes, including eight females, and will compete across 22 disciplines, including athletics, shooting, taekwondo and volleyball. The three-week Asian Games operate both as a continental precursor and, at times, a qualifying tournament for 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Young Falcons made their football debut at the Asian Games in South Korea four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals in Incheon, before losing to Iraq. Their regional neighbors were inspired by legendary striker Younes Mahmoud, who had been included as one of Iraq’s three over-age players and scored twice in a 3-0 win.
Yet the impact of Mahmoud in Korea has not influenced the team’s selection. With the Saudi Pro League starting next week, coach Saad Al-Shehri has opted to forego athletes older than 23, instead selecting a squad consisting primarily of Al-Ahli development players and a smattering of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq-based youths.
“We haven’t brought any overage players because we are playing here as preparation for the U23 Asian Cup, which will offer qualification for Tokyo 2020,” said Faisal Almarashdi, a spokesman for the team.
“We have brought to Indonesia only players who are 21 or under as they will all be eligible for Tokyo. Many have already played at the Under-20 World Cup under coach Saad, so there was never any discussion to use the three allocated over-age slots.”
Abdullah Otayf is the model example of how Asian Games experience can help a young career. Four years ago, the deep-lying midfielder was part of the squad that traveled to Korea. This summer he was an integral part of the Green Falcons side that played at the World Cup in Russia. 
With national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi following the competition from afar, there will be chances to catch the eye for the likes of striker Haroune Camara and midfielders Abdullah Yahya Magrshi and Ali Hassan Al-Asmari ahead of January’s Asian Cup. Both midfielders have already made their full debuts for Ahli and featured in the Jeddah club’s Champions League campaign last season, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Camara was included in Pizzi’s provisional World Cup squad before being cut from the final 23.
“These Asian Games are very important for the young players involved,” Almarashdi added.
“They are the future of the senior team so if they play well here and at the U23 Asian Cup then, we hope, they will go to Tokyo 2020. From then on the pathway to the senior team is already very clear.”  
Much like the seniors, the U23 side is both short and slight, with only two of the 10 midfielders and forwards standing above 5 foot 8 (172m). Today’s opponents Iran are not only taller and more physical, they also have, in Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjčar, a manager who knows West Asian football after short spells in Qatar and the UAE. In their most recent preparation match, Iran lost 3-2 to China. 
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, beat the UAE last week in Malaysia following a pair of friendlies against local sides. Today’s match will kick-off at 4 p.m. local time, midday in Saudi Arabia.