The European season comes to an end on Saturday as Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League, and Mohamed Salah helping the English team to the continental title would be a perfect ending for millions of Arab football fans.
But whatever happens in Paris, it has already been a season to remember for players from this part of the world.
Salah has won the English Premier League golden boot for the third time, the 29-year-old also recording 13 assists, the most in the league. The Egyptian has been so consistently impressive for the Reds that his achievements have become almost commonplace, but they deserve celebrating. So does the fact that he has already won the League Cup and FA Cup in England and is close to a third trophy, the biggest of all.
Salah is already a legend on Merseyside and his status at Anfield is likely to endure even longer after he said on Wednesday that he is not about to leave anytime soon.
“I don’t want to talk about the contract. I’m staying next season for sure, let’s see after that,” said Salah at Liverpool’s pre-match media day. His deal, which is due to expire next summer, has been the subject of much debate in recent months, but his comments this week — though he did not give any details — will be welcome even if the long-term future is still unclear.
Despite scoring his 23rd goal on the final day of the season to help Liverpool to a 3-1 victory over Wolves, it wasn’t quite enough to win the title. That went to Manchester City.
Riyad Mahrez had another fine campaign under Pep Guardiola as he won a fourth Premier League championship, one with Leicester City and now three with his current club. The Algerian scored 11 league goals and managed seven more in the UEFA Champions League. That is an impressive haul by anyone’s standards and all would agree that the 31-year-old has established himself as one of the top players in the biggest league in the world.
Mohamed Elneny may not be an automatic starter in the Arsenal team but the Egyptian international, who has made 147 appearances for the Gunners, has just signed a new contract with the North London outfit, which finished fifth and just missed out on a Champions League place.
“Mo is a really important part of the team,” said Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta. “He is loved by everyone. He’s an important player for us on and off the pitch, a real role model to our younger players, and I’m delighted he’s staying.”
Mahrez’s title is not the only big league championship that is being celebrated in Algeria. Ismail Bennacer has helped AC Milan win Serie A for the first time in 11 years. The central midfielder made 31 league appearances and played a major part in the success. At just 24, there is plenty of football left in the legs of the former Arsenal academy player and he has been linked with a move to England.
Amazingly, all the players mentioned will miss out on the World Cup. Egypt failed to qualify after losing a penalty shootout to Senegal with the place in Qatar at stake. It is hard to know if that was more or less heartbreaking than Algeria’s experience. The Desert Foxes seemed to have it in the bag but conceded a goal in the last minute of extra-time in the second leg against Cameroon.
That is not the case when it comes to Morocco, which is already preparing for the World Cup. Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was so good for Sevilla that he was awarded La Liga’s Zamora trophy, given to the shot-stopper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio. He conceded just 24 in 31 appearances to finish with 0.77, edging out Thibault Courtois of Real Madrid.
“I would like to congratulate Yassine Bounou. He’s a very good friend of mine. Congratulations to him for the Zamora trophy,” Courtois said in tribute to the North African.
Another player who now looks like he is going to the World Cup is Nasser Mazraoui, who has had a very interesting season. The right-back has starred as Ajax won the Eredivisie and it was his third title in the Netherlands. The 24-year-old has done all he can do in the country and, from next month, will move to Bayern Munich and there could be a chance of Champions League titles in the coming years.
Then there is the saga of the national team. Along with Hakim Ziyech, the defender had fallen out with Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodzic and was not called up for the African Cup of Nations in January, as the team lost to Egypt in the quarter-finals, as well as the World Cup play-off.
Earlier this week, however, Mazraoui was named in the squad for June’s friendly with the US and looks to be back in the fold. Ziyech has yet to return and it remains to be seen what happens.
There have been no such international issues with Achraf Hakimi. The right-back joined Paris Saint-Germain last July fresh after winning the Italian league with Inter Milan. He has shone in France and added the Ligue 1 title. It was only the relative failure in the UEFA Champions League that has cast a shadow over the campaign.
There will be another chance next season but it will have to be good to better this one with league titles, individual awards and perhaps even continental prizes at the highest levels of European football.