LOS ANGELES: Pretenders to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dual throne have tried and failed to unseat the pair from world football’s high altar over the last 15 years.
The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry, Gareth Bale and Neymar have all approached the foot of the mountain, yet none have been able to consistently reach the staggeringly high standards set by the two El Clasico rivals.
Mohamed Salah’s goal-laden maiden season at Anfield has inevitably prompted debate over whether the Egyptian can unseat Messi and Ronaldo, or, given the age discrepancies, ultimately succeed the pair as football’s prime performer.
It is a water cooler debate that extends far beyond Anfield, the Nou Camp or the Bernabeu.
But as a regular in the stands of former clubs Liverpool and Barcelona, Champions League winner Luis Garcia is well-placed to make a judgment on whether Salah can rival Messi’s genius.
“There’s been a lot of talk comparing the two because Salah has scored so many goals,” Garcia told Arab News.
“But I think it’s too early. I’m sure Salah is happy to be compared to Messi, but on the other side of it, you’re putting a lot of pressure on him.
“Salah has done well for one season, whereas Messi has been doing it for almost 15 years and has scored more than 500 goals.
“Salah is on a fantastic wave, but we have to give him time. I can’t wait to see if he’s even better next season.”
As a former right winger himself though, Garcia admits he has been staggered by Salah becoming only the third player in Liverpool’s decorated history to have reached the landmark of 40 goals in all competitions in a solitary season.
It could get even better for the Arab Contractors’ youth product too.
Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first leg against AS Roma on Tuesday is the first of at least five remaining games this season for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Salah needs seven goals from that run to reach the highest tally ever scored by a Reds player in a single campaign. The current record of 47 has stood for more than 30 years after being set by Ian Rush in 1983-84.
Garcia said: “Records are there to be broken, but you wouldn’t expect a player on the right wing to be scoring that many.
“We knew he was a very good player, but seeing what he’s done throughout the whole season has been incredible.
“When you’re in that position on the right wing, you’ll usually have periods when you don’t score many goals, but every single game he’s been there.”
Garcia’s former clubs could have been going head-to-head on Tuesday, yet Roma’s shock second-leg comeback in their quarterfinal win over Barcelona handed the Serie A outfit the chance to earn a spot in May’s Champions League final in Kiev.
With heavyweights Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the other semifinal, Garcia believes Liverpool got the best of the draw, but after seeing the way Roma performed in coming back from 4-1 down against Barca, he is under no illusions about the danger posed to Klopp’s side.
“Right now, Liverpool have got fantastic momentum and you have to take that into consideration,” said the former Spanish international.
“When you see Bayern and Real Madrid in the other semifinal, Liverpool will be quite happy that they were drawn against Roma.
“But I was surprised and impressed by the way that Roma played against Barcelona.”
If Liverpool need any extra motivation at Anfield, they only need to look back 13 years to the rich memories that Champions League success can bring.
Garcia was part of Rafa Benitez’s side who produced the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ after overcoming a 3-0 half-time deficit to beat AC Milan in arguably the most famous Champions League final in the competition’s history.
“That final changed my life,” added Garcia, speaking in Los Angeles at the launch event for this summer’s International Champions Cup pre-season tournament.
“It was the highlight of my career and it was so special with the way the game went. It linked me to Liverpool for the rest of my life.
“It’s all I ever talk about when I go back to Anfield, and I love talking about it!
“It’s been the main trophy from the last 15 years, but this year could be another massive year for the club.”