LIVERPOOL travel to Southampton today and Mohamed Salah is, rightly, among the leading Footballer of the Year candidates, alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Harry Kane. He is the second-leading goalscorer in the Premier League and if he scores just two more in any competition between now and the end of the season, he will become only the 13th player in the history of Liverpool to hit the 30-goal mark in a single campaign. And that is all the more remarkable when you consider he is not his team’s main attacking terminus.

Salah’s impact this season has had a series of knock-on effects. Those who don’t like Jose Mourinho use him as a stick with which to beat the Special One. The fact he managed just six league starts in 12 months at Stamford Bridge puts him in the same basket as De Bruyne, another future superstar whose gifts Mourinho failed to appreciate. It is a bit more complex than that, of course, but it is convenient football currency.

Then there is the fact that while Salah excelled in two-and-a-half Serie A seasons with Fiorentina and Roma, he has taken it to another level in England. Those who lament the ceaseless Sky-fuelled hype machine might point out that maybe it’s evidence that the Premier League isn’t several orders of magnitude ahead of everybody else. Or, more simply – and more obviously – a manager’s style of play will have a massive impact on a player’s individual production. At Roma, he was out on the wing playing off a big, static target man like Edin Dzeko whereas under Jurgen Klopp he is part of a fluid front three with a far more assist-minded centre-forward like Roberto Firmino.

Loading article content

There is also the analytics v old-school angle. Liverpool’s number crunchers noted the industrial quantity of assists and goals he provided. The more traditional scouts were put off by the fact Salah is primarily one-footed and the fact that, for all his hyperactivity, he seemed to miss too may chances having done the hard work. The former won out and Salah moved to Anfield, scoring a win for the “moneyball” types.

And in some ways, it goes straight to the heart of analytics. They would argue that it doesn’t matter that Salah is one-footed or that he looks horrendous and ungainly with his weaker foot as long as he does enough with his other one. Equally, they could argue that his supposedly poor finishing in Serie A might have been the result of chance and probability and a small sample size.

Yet even applying a simple “eye test”, Salah’s worth would have been clear. Even when he was fluffing his finishes (and, however poor his finishes might have been, 34 goals over two seasons as a traditional winger in a 4-3-3 speak volumes) he was doing the difficult bits: getting into the right positions, using his pace to force opposing defences deeper and regularly beating opponents off the dribble.

And those are qualities that matter, particularly in Klopp’s system, with Salah’s goals being merely a bonus. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but the more you look at it, Salah was far more than a calculated risk. And perhaps his success this season will impact on how Liverpool and others weigh up their transfer targets, getting the right combination of analytics and “eye test”.

THERE is nothing particularly new to Mauricio Pochettino’s comments on simulation. It may have felt jarring when he complained, in the aftermath of Dele Alli’s booking, that we focus too much on “minimal details” like diving and that it risked “killing the game”. But his broader point about trickery and creativity having always been part of football has been around for decades.

Pochettino’s argument that whether it be tactics or dribbling, fakery and misdirection are integral to football is correct. It is virtually impossible to run at an opponent and beat him without pretending to do one thing and then do another, whether it is a stutter step, a shift in body weight, a step over or a change in direction. And tactics is all about moving players around the pitch to gain an advantage and fool an opponent.

That said, there is a key distinction to be made. Pochettino says “football is about trying to trick your opponent”. But when you dive to win a penalty or exaggerate the extent of an injury, you are not fooling your opponent. You are fooling, or attempting to fool, the referee. And that takes it into a different ethical dimension.

There are cultural differences and there is hypocrisy (and it was fun to hear him bring up Michael Owen’s dive in the 2002 World Cup when the England forward won a penalty against Pochettino and Argentina). But no matter your view, the fact remains: the “victim” of your trickery when you dive isn’t your opponent, it is the referee. And if you love the game as much as Pochettino says he does, there is no reason to make the match officials job any harder than it is.

THE Champions League returns this week with Real Madrid hosting Paris St-Germain on Wednesday the undoubted highlight for the neutral. It is hard to overstate the stakes for both.

Real Madrid are so far behind in La Liga (19 points behind league-leading Barcelona going into the weekend, but also 10 behind Atletico Madrid) that the best they can hope for is a top-three finish. They were also eliminated by little Leganes in the Copa del Rey quarter-final which means that, in practical terms, the Champions League is all they have left. An exit at this stage would mark the first time in eight years that they failed to reach the quarter-finals and, possibly, lead to Zinedine Zidane’s dismissal in the summer and a radical overhaul of the side.

As for PSG, they will likely win Ligue 1 and probably the French League Cup and French Cup as well, but that is not really the point, since they have achieved this in past years too. Their measuring stick is the Champions League and they took a massive gamble in the summer with the signings of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and the potential violations of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that an exit at the first knockout stage may well cost Unai Emery his job and make it a lot easier for Uefa to throw the book at them (in part because, relative to a run to the final, it will leave them some £80 million worse off).

One way or another, there will be blood.