For once in a Champions League final, Cristiano Ronaldo will yield some of the spotlight to another player sweeping up adulation and personal acclaim.
While five-time world player of the year Ronaldo is chasing a record fifth Champions League triumph, and fourth with Real Madrid, Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah is chasing a first. Not just a first Champions League success, but a first major title in football in his maiden cup final.
Victory in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on Saturday would be a fitting climax to an astonishing debut season at Liverpool for Salah. A season when the Egyptian seized his second chance at a Premier League club with gusto after a faltering spell at Chelsea.
Salah has had such a devastating impact that he poses a serious threat to the decade of dominance of the world player of the year award by Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
“Comparing players with Ronaldo and Messi is something you can’t do,” Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said on Friday. “They’re in another orbit. There are players who are in fashion, those who come and go and others who stay around.
“Salah is a top player, that’s clear. He’s shown that this year and he’s got a great chance to show that over the next few years as Ronaldo and Messi have done - but the day after tomorrow.”
While lacking the flashy touch of Ronaldo, and presenting the image of a more modest lifestyle on social media, the “Egyptian King” is as adept at harnessing his commercial appeal. In recent weeks, Salah could be found at news conferences promoting a cellphone company, a logistics firm and taxi service. No wonder Salah is making the most of his newly-elevated status in the global game. In 2014, when Ronaldo reached the first of his four Champions League finals with Madrid, Salah was just completing his first five months drifting in and out of the Chelsea team.
Salah never settled and was eventually discarded by the west London club after only 13 appearances under Jose Mourinho. In Italy, a career stalling was reignited at Roma and Liverpool came calling last year.
Few could have imagined Salah’s impact, powering the five-time European champions to their first Champions League final in 11 years with 11 goals in a run that began in the playoff round. Ronaldo eclipsed Salah in the competition with 15 goals after starting out in the group stage.
Both locked on 44 goals each
But both Salah and Ronaldo stand locked on 44 goals for the season in all competitions heading into the final. So potent is the 33-year-old Ronaldo, he only required 43 games. Salah, who is eight years younger, played eight more than the Portuguese.
“He’s the best,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo, “and he proves it every year.”
Particularly in Europe, where Ronaldo is the all-time leading Champions League scorer with 120 goals. Real Madrid is seeking a record-extending 13th European club title.
“When you’re at this club you cannot take your foot off the gas, least of all in this competition,” Ronaldo said. “I love that side of it because it motivates me a lot.”
While Madrid and Liverpool are contesting the biggest prize in club football, they were far off the pace in their home leagues.
Third in the Premier League still represented progress for Liverpool under Juergen Klopp, who previously finished sixth, eighth and fourth.
But Madrid regressed in La Liga, surrendering its title with a third-place finish. For a manager who has won the Champions League three times in the last four years, it might take retaining the European Cup for Zidane to keep his job.
“To reach a final is not easy,” Zidane reminded his critics. “This is beautiful. This is my passion, I’ve always been a good competitor, I like to compete and behind all that is a lot of hard work. Not only on my part but also the players. If you like to compete and want to work hard you can achieve what we are doing.”
Klopp’s grip on the Liverpool job will not be impacted by Saturday’s result but victory would put the brakes on a run of five cup finals losses, including in the 2013 Champions League decider to Bayern Munich while Borussia Dortmund manager.
“I know how I lost the finals, it didn’t change my life,” said Klopp, a two-time Bundesliga champion with Dortmund. “It’s not that I wake up every morning and think, ‘Wow. That was a big chance.’“