Champions League: For Real Madrid, could Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah make up for Kylian Mbappe slipping away?

Whatever the result at the Stade de France on Saturday night, Real Madrid will not be coming back from Paris with quite the same gusto that they had been expecting. Carlo Ancelotti could return to the Spanish capital, Champions League trophy draped out of one hand, chomping down on a cigar, but there would still be something missing.

Being pied off by Kylian Mbappe has sent Madrid into a profound funk that extends beyond just the Santiago Bernabeu. On late night TV show and viral sensation El Chiringuito de Jugones bereaved supporters cast a plague on the Mbappe household. The rage is not confined to the mad fringes of Spanish football culture either. La Liga president Javier Tebas called Paris Saint-Germain signing Mbappe to a sizeable salary “an INSULT to football.” Before the deal was even announced, the Spanish league itself was accusing PSG of “[endangering] European football on the same level as the European Super League.”

Spanish anger shows no sign of dispelling even if the three year contract Mbappe has agreed to opens the door rather wide to a future departure. Aurelien Tchouameni, one of the best young midfielders in the world, is quite the compensation prize but it does little to fill the Mbappe-shaped hole in Madrid hearts.

That is rather the problem that Florentino Perez faces. It is not as if their plan was to sign the best young forward in the world and Mbappe was simply the best option available to them. Madrid wanted Kylian Mbappe and Kylian Mbappe is the only Kylian Mbappe they could have got.

Naturally there will be precious little sympathy at those clubs who have, for years, looked over their shoulder as the Spanish giants loomed large. Even in an era where Madrid and Barcelona lack the financial muscle to pressure Premier League giants into selling, they still manage to get their man. Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen are bound for La Liga as free agents after Chelsea were unable to tie them down. In what might be a new era of greater player empowerment, partly triggered by Mbappe’s allowing his contract to expire and the clauses Erling Haaland inserted into his deal that ensured most of the money Manchester City spent on him went to him, there will be further opportunities for Madrid to find a stopgap at the very least.  

And maybe the cruelest irony of all is that Mbappe was the perfect fit for Madrid. This was not a signing in the mold of Gareth Bale or James Rodriguez where the talent was indisputable, the fit questionable. In the short term he would slot in comfortably alongside Benzema and Vinicius Junior, when the former aged out of his current peak then his compatriot could easily step into the central role or stay where he is with someone else stepping up.

Mbappe was tailor-made for Real Madrid both on and off the field. One of the games biggest prizes also happened to fit easily into the team as currently constructed. Now, somewhere in his vast Madrid mansion, Perez might just be sleeping in till midday, wondering the halls in sweatpants as he tries to imagine life without the one that spurned him. He could scroll through the pages of looking for everyone that might remind him of the one that got away. Christopher Nkunku, Arnaut Danjuma, Luis Muriel, some guy called Karim Benzema. All well and good. Some of them might even help Madrid find contentment over the coming years. But they all have one problem. None of them are Mbappe.

They had prudently built their squad to allow their dream target to slot in, scurrying away funds over the years to pay for a free transfer that was anything but. Top tier young talent such as Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguilon and Martin Odegaard was cashed in on without replacement, all to swell the Mbappe fund. With Mbappe no longer in the picture, the task becomes finding not only somebody who fits in the team, but somebody who is a big enough name in their own right to retroactively make all those sacrifices worth it.

Real Madrid need a star, one who will not feel like a consolation prize, and one who fits in their team as seamlessly as the French forward would have. In short, they seem to need the player who will be lining up at right wing for their opponent on Saturday. If Mohamed Salah is not the only name that suits the Madrid list of requirements, he’s one of very few on an exceedingly short list.

Salah ought to tick every box. Madrid have, of course, been scarred by signing Eden Hazard, another player who had lit up the Premier League in his late 20s but arrived in Spain burdened by years of carrying an offensive load. However, if Perez can hold tight for 12 months there may be no-one better than Salah to slot in alongside Benzema, who tends to drop into the number 10 position, and the wing play of Vinicius. Having peaked later, it is fair to reason that he can perform at the highest level for longer. Jurgen Klopp has already predicted that he will be able to maintain his form well into his 30s. Off the field he is one of the sport’s brightest stars and biggest names, idolized by a nation of 100 million, with sponsors from Pepsi to Adidas (Madrid’s long term shirt sponsor).  

Given all that, it was notable then, that Mohamed Salah offered at least some indication he might take a similar tack to Mbappe over the coming 12 months. At the end of his pre-Champions League final press conference he said, “I’m staying next season, that’s for sure. I’m staying next season.” Come the end of it he will be out of contract, a prime target for Madrid after years in which eyelashes have been fluttered across the sea by both parties.

He may not have fond memories of the team who beat him in the Champions League final four years ago, Sergio Ramos dislocating his shoulder to add salt to the wounds, but Salah does not shy away from interviews with Marca, the Spanish daily sports newspaper that can on occasion appear to the news arm of Perez’s Madrid. “Maybe one day,” is a familiar refrain, one where it is never entirely clear how much Salah wants a move to Spain or better terms at Anfield.

In any other circumstance it is easy to see how Salah would be the prize Madrid coveted. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Madrid poaching their Champions League final opponent’s best player a year after the contest is absolutely the kind of swagger-filled move that, most of the time, would leave El Chiringuito boasting of the unparalleled appeal of the world’s biggest team. There are simply not many bigger prizes than Salah.

But this is not any other circumstance. And in this circumstance one fly in the ointment remains. Madrid tried to sign Mbappe. And while Salah is many things, there is one thing he is not: Kylian Mbappe. 


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