In the oppressive heat of the press room at the Stadio San Paolo, Jürgen Klopp made it very clear he would not join the debate over Mohamed Salah’s form. “Be relaxed, completely relaxed,” was his final piece of advice to the Liverpool striker, having straight-batted several questions on a subject he considers overblown. Gini Wijnaldum then replaced his manager in the press room. “I’ve told Mo he’s got to get more hat-tricks,” said the midfielder. “He’s had enough of scoring twos, he has to get threes.”
As manager, Klopp has to be more careful with public demands of a crucial player and there is certainly foundation to his argument that Salah’s start – so similar to that of last season – would not have attracted so much focus had Liverpool other things to worry about. As things stand they do not: sitting top of their Champions League group going into Wednesday’s game with Napoli, second in the Premier League only on goal difference as they prepare for Sunday’s showdown with Manchester City at Anfield and still unbeaten in the league thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s 89th-minute equaliser at Chelsea on Saturday.
Wijnaldum has less reason than Klopp to play the diplomat and, as well as revealing his own instructions to the Egypt international, believes there are ramifications to last season’s phenomenal return of 44 goals for the 26-year-old. Namely, Salah set a standard that has to be maintained for the comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to continue.
“I told him I expect more hat-tricks this season, last year there was only one, and he said I was right,” said the Wijnaldum, increasingly influential himself this term. “I told him: ‘Mo, you are a top player. If you look at Messi and Ronaldo they score a lot of hat-tricks – you have to do the same if you want to compete with them.’
“It’s easy to say [he’s not in form]. Now we are used to Mo scoring goals. Maybe last season he didn’t have some good games but he always scored goals. People see that and say: ‘Ah. He played good.’ But now he is not scoring and people are saying he is in a difficult situation. I don’t see it that way. He still works hard, he still creates chances.
“Against Chelsea he had three chances where he could score a goal. He could have given an assist to Roberto Firmino too. I don’t think it’s that bad, put it that way. When he doesn’t score people are going to say he’s not in good shape. I don’t see the difference. I think he had scored one more last season than he has this year. That is the only difference.”
Klopp would not disclose whether he had spoken to Salah after his substitution at Stamford Bridge, claiming to do so would make the issue much bigger. He said: “His game is really good. His last game was really good – he was in the positions but then the last two balls were not too cool. That happens. He lost balls in those situations last year. The quality is there and so everything is fine.”
If there is pressure on Salah, however, pressure of his own making, then Wijnaldum has no doubt the forward has the personality to thrive upon it. “I said: ‘Mo, it’s not only one year,’ and he said: ‘You’re right.’
“We were joking but if someone can deal with pressure it is Mo. Last season he had pressure when people were saying he had to be the top scorer in the league. We told him he couldn’t let anyone catch him. When he was on 18 goals he said: ‘In my head I can do the 32.’ Mo is not someone that is scared of pressure. He embraces the pressure. He knows that he can do it.”
Liverpool can take firm control of Group C by following their thrilling victory over Paris Saint-Germain with a defeat of Napoli, who drew their opening match at Red Star Belgrade. Carlo Ancelotti, the Napoli manager, believes Liverpool’s consistency under Klopp has returned them to the elite of European competition but his counterpart was not taken by the niceties. “As we say in Germany he is a smart fox, saying all these positive things about us before the game,” said Klopp. “I am ready for a real battle.”
He added: “So far yes, it looks like we are more consistent. Now we have show it again. Consistency must be judged at the end of the season. We did the job so far. Two of my favourite games, one we lost and one we drew. I was happy with those experiences against Chelsea. Now let’s play football again.
“This is a different challenge. They do not play like they did last year. They have 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 where they defend properly but if you lose the ball they are really on their bike. Tomorrow, we need to be at our highest level because this is a tough place.”