Salah: Is the Liverpool forward’s impending AFCON absence being overplayed?

Liverpool could be without Mohamed Salah for a month, with their superstar forward representing Egypt at the imminent Africa Cup of Nations (Credit: IMAGO)

Salah: Is the Liverpool forward’s impending AFCON absence being overplayed?

Seye Omidiora 09:49 - 28.12.2023

Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota netted in Liverpool’s win at Burnley, and it was timely for Jurgen Klopp’s men with their superstar forward set to leave for Africa Cup of Nations duty with Egypt.

What would have pleased Jurgen Klopp more than Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Burnley on Boxing Day? The Reds’ goalscorers at Turf Moor as the Merseyside club returned to the top of the Premier League table.

Salah was not needed as Liverpool defeated Burnley

Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota found the back of the net against Vincent Kompany’s relegation-threatened men, ending what was becoming a worrying pattern for the 2020 English topflight champions. 

It was the first time a Liverpool forward not named Mohamed Salah found the back of the net in the league since Klopp’s men defeated Brentford on November 12. Jota netted in the 74th minute to seal a flattering 3-0 win over the Bees, and it was the injury returnee who doubled the away side’s advantage at Burnley on Boxing Day.

However, it was not the former Wolverhampton Wanderers forward’s goal that got everyone excited. That was Nunez, who technically ended the six-week wait for a non-Salah strike among the team’s forwards with his sixth-minute strike from the edge of the box to send Liverpool into an early lead.

Klopp was pleased with the names on the scoresheet, but the Reds boss must have silently been satisfied that Salah played no direct part in both goals.

How Salah has dominated Liverpool’s attack this season

The Egyptian’s 12 goals plus seven assists before Liverpool’s trip to Burnley accounted for 51.4% of the table-topping side’s 37 strikes before gameweek 19, now at 48.7% of 39 after Tuesday’s encounter. Compared with other sides in the top five — Arsenal, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City — Liverpool’s reliance on Salah is evident.

Bukayo Saka’s 11 contributions only account for 30.5% of Arsenal’s 36 goals, while Ollie Watkins’ 15 involvements have him playing a part in 37.5% of Villa’s 40 Premier League strikes. Spurs captain Heung-min Son’s 15 participations preceding goals make up 40.5% of the Lilywhites’ league goals, and Erling Haaland unsurprisingly leads the way for Pep Guardiola’s men, with the Norwegian’s 18 direct involvements staggeringly accounting for 45% of the Cityzens’ 40 strikes before Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Everton (it fell to 42% after the victory at Goodison Park).

Salah comfortably leads the way with Haaland not far behind, albeit after playing fewer games than the Egypt international, instantly underscoring Liverpool’s reliance on the three-time Golden Boot winner.

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah – A Dynamic Force at Liverpool (Credit: Imago)

The forward scoring or assisting in all but four of the Reds’ 19 games has led observers to postulate that Klopp’s men could suffer from the Egyptian’s absence during the Africa Cup of Nations. Anyone would miss the quality and consistency of Salah’s continued brilliance, but how badly would Liverpool?

Games Salah could miss during AFCON 2023

Depending on the Pharaohs’ progress in the continental showpiece, Salah may not return until February. Having ended runners-up in 2017 and the most recent edition, the 31-year-old’s international career is winding down, and the forward could be playing his penultimate or final AFCON in the Ivory Coast next year.

That is no guarantee of going the distance at the finals, even if it motivates the North African nation to reign supreme again after a 14-year wait. If all goes well for the Pharaohs, Salah may be absent until Liverpool’s trip to Brentford on February 17, six days after the competition’s completion.

Mohamed Salah
Egypt forward Mohamed Salah will miss Liverpool's visit to title rivals Arsenal in January due to AFCON participation

With the 31-year-old expected to depart after the Reds’ FA Cup Third Round clash with Arsenal on January 7, their superstar forward could miss Premier League trips to Bournemouth and the Gunners, home games against Chelsea and Burnley and both legs of the EFL Cup semis against Fulham.

While Andoni Iraola’s team have secured 19 points from seven games and sit top of the Premier League form table, much could change before both sides battle on January 21, and the rematch with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal ostensibly is the most challenging fixture Salah’s individual quality could prove a significant miss. Be that as it may, stranger things have happened.

Will Liverpool’s forwards step up in Salah’s AFCON absence?

A big deal is being made of Salah’s absence because the forwards around him stopped delivering consistently in the weeks leading up to Boxing Day. 

Luis Diaz was on a drought before the scary kidnapping of his parents and has not found the back of the net in the league since a late leveller at Luton Town on November 5. Nunez went eight Premier League appearances without scoring until his well-taken strike at Turf Moor, and Cody Gakpo, who had an outstanding finish against Burnley chalked off, has not netted for the Reds since September 30 at Tottenham Hotspur.

Klopp needs Cody Gakpo scoring again when Salah departs for AFCON duty with Egypt (Credit: Shutterstock)

Liverpool have stayed competitive and then some despite Europa League commitments (although this should be further tested in the competition’s knockout stages) and have relied heavily on their superstar forward to guide them through a difficult period for their other attackers.

Nunez and Jota scoring on Boxing Day was just what the doctor ordered for Klopp and Liverpool. Now they must prove it was no one-off with beleaguered Newcastle United to visit Anfield on New Year’s Day in the final league fixture before Salah’s potential month-long departure.