Mohamed Salah, in the red of Liverpool, and Cristiano Ronaldo, in the white of Real Madrid, will be expected to score goals tonight worthy of European football’s annual showpiece.
Two teams of 11 men apiece will emerge into the Olympic stadium in Kiev on Saturday night for the 2018 Champions League final but much of the attention of Europe’s fans will be focused on two individuals whose head-to-head battle is likely to define an outcome worth not just around £80m to the winner but pride and prestige of incalculable value.
Mohamed Salah, in the red of Liverpool, and Cristiano Ronaldo, in the white of Real Madrid, will be expected to score goals worthy of European football’s annual showpiece. In that sense the two men play the same role but in very different ways and with strongly contrasting personal styles.
A 33-year-old Portuguese who has spent the last dozen years competing with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the title of the world’s best player, Ronaldo has preened and strutted like a superstar since he was a teenager. In big matches he celebrates his goals by removing his jersey to reveal an astonishing display of musculature, tanned, oiled and depilated to perfection; it is honed by a ferocious fitness regime involving exposure to temperatures reaching -200C in a cryotherapy chamber, high-pressure water massages and improbable numbers of one-armed press-ups.
He came to prominence under Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United before moving to Madrid in 2009 for a world-record £80m fee, having won every available individual award during his five seasons in English football. He has scored 121 goals in 156 Champions League matches and is on course to become the competition’s top goalscorer for an extraordinary sixth year in a row, with 15 in 12 matches so far in the present campaign. He has been awarded the Ballon d’Or five times – the same as Messi – and is the all-time top scorer for his country and Real Madrid.
Salah, an altogether less self-conscious figure, spent an inconclusive season at Chelsea in 2014-15 before moving to Roma and rebuilding his career effectively enough to attract the interest of Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp. He returned to England a year ago for a fee of £36.9m – a relatively modest sum, given the world record stands at £200m – and is now the idol of the red half of Merseyside and all of Egypt.
As well as bringing him player-of-the-year awards from his fellow professionals and the football writers, his 44 goals for Liverpool this season in all competitions obliterated fans’ painful memories of the loss to Barcelona first of Luis Suárez and then, this past January, of Philippe Coutinho. Each had been a prolific goalscorer; few anticipated that Salah, who had failed to impress José Mourinho while at Stamford Bridge, would outshine them both. Ten of his goals this season have come in the Champions League, carrying Liverpool to within touching distance of their sixth win in the competition.
Ronaldo was born in Funchal, the largest city of Portugal’s Madeiran archipelago, where his mother worked as a cook and his father as a gardener. With a dedication to self-improvement that has impressed a succession of managers, he turned himself into the greatest Portuguese player of all time, his deeds eclipsing those of Eusébio, the Mozambique-born forward who won the European Cup with Benfica in 1962 and was top scorer at the 1966 World Cup. Ronaldo is bidding for his fifth European Cup winner’s medal while his club are going for their 13th title, and their third in a row.
Salah is from Nagrig, a farming community in the Nile Delta, 80 miles from Cairo, where he was born into a middle-class Muslim family. His childhood was spent reading his schoolbooks during the long journey to and from training sessions with El Mokawloon, a Cairo club, involving several buses in each direction. Now he is Africa’s player of the year and his popularity at home is such that in the recent Egyptian presidential elections a million voters are said to have written in his name on their ballot papers.
His Liverpool wages have subsidised a youth centre and an ambulance station in his hometown, and he is building a school to provide a non-extremist Muslim education for girls and boys. Ronaldo has given money, including his £600,000 winning bonus from last year’s Champions League final, to many causes, one of them a school in Gaza.
At their best, each man offers a thrilling spectacle. Where Ronaldo surges and shimmers before bemusing goalkeepers with shots that weave and dip viciously, Salah simply explodes. From his regular station on the right wing, he cuts inside his marker and moves across the face of the penalty area before shooting with his stronger left foot, usually aiming to place the ball inside the far post.
Both have alternate weapons in their armoury. Ronaldo, at 6ft 2in, has the power and the leap that enable him to score memorable headed goals. The 5ft 9in Salah exploits his low centre of gravity to twist and turn inside the penalty area, flicking the ball away from more cumbersome opponents with something of Messi’s mesmerising deftness.
A sixth win for the pouting and obsessively groomed Ronaldo, now with the edge perhaps gone from his once blistering speed, or a first for the smiling, tousle-headed Salah, entering his prime propelled by an infectious optimism? Whichever way it goes, this is one final likely to justify the hype.