Armed with his trademark stache and a poacher's instincts, Liverpool legend Ian Rush made a mockery of defenses in the the 1980s and the early 90s. The Welshman, who joined the Merseyside club from Chester City in 1980 for £300,000, then a record fee for a teenager, took some time to settle in his then new home, but once he found his footing in the boisterous Anfield, he ensured he left a lasting legacy.
Rush knows a thing or two about scoring goals. His 660 appearances for Liverpool, which came in two stints, resulted in 346 goals for the club, the most by any player who played for the club. One of the best strikers the game had ever seen, Rush thinks it's just a matter of time before current Liverpool star and prolific goal-scorer Mohamed Salah starts firing again for the club.
Salah, in his debut season for the club, scored 44 goals, including 32 in the league, the most by any player in a season since the inception of the Premier League. Salah came close to beat Rush's record 47 goals set in 1983-84 season, which is the highest number in all competitions for any Liverpool player.
"First of all, he was not going to be as good as last season because last season, for me, he was best in the world. Better than (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo. He still scored 17 league goals this season. It's no worry at all because he's getting chances, but not scoring them. If he was not getting chances then it would've been a bit of worry. It's just a matter of time before he starts scoring," Rush said in an exclusive interview with Firstpost,
Salah has already netted 20 goals this season, but his form in the last few matches took a beating and the forward has looked out of sorts in crucial matches against Manchester United and Everton. Liverpool drew those matches to surrender the top spot in the league to Manchester City, and Salah's iffiness in front of the goal has been a major talking point.
Rush is of the opinion that the criticism of Salah is bit unfair, but also understandable, because of the forward's terrific first season with the club. He wants the team to look for other avenues to score goals, when the front three, which includes Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, fail to make an impact.
"That's because he was so good last year. This season, a lot of teams put two men on Salah. What Liverpool have to realise is if teams are not allowing the front three to score, there is space somewhere down the pitch. They have to look at midfielders to contribute with the goals if the front three are not scoring," said Rush, who's in Mumbai as special guest for the Standard Chartered Trophy 2019, which is conducted by Standard Chartered Bank in association with Liverpool Football Club.
Liverpool are in the midst of a highly intensive battle with Pep Guardiola's Manchester City for the Premier League title. With nine games to play, Liverpool are in second position in the table, with City being on top by four points, albeit having played a game more than their rivals.
The draw against Everton was telling, with Liverpool players receiving a lot of flak for not being at their best. Liverpool, a giant in the English football, never won the league title in the Premier League era and some wondered if the pressure is overwhelming the players.
In this crucial stage of the league, Rush insisted that Jurgen Klopp and his team shouldn't succumb to the pressure. "If you're playing for Liverpool, there's pressure anyway. The standards are set by Liverpool. It's right for the fans to get excited, but as long as players don't feel the pressure and as long as the manager doesn't change anything, it will be ok."
Rush, in fact, believes that there is more pressure on Manchester City to not drop points. This was not the case last time around where the won the league without much challenge from other clubs. They secured a record total of 100 points from 38 matches, losing just twice in their campaign.
"The pressure is also on Manchester City. Last year, they won the league too easily but now Liverpool have put pressure on them. Previously, Manchester City really wanted to the Champions League and rested players in the Premier League, but this time, they can't do that. If they do that, they might lose a game," Rush said. "Yeah, they have got a great squad and a great manager, but they can't afford to lose," Rush added.
City are in race to win three more trophies after securing the Carabao Cup this season, while Liverpool recently dropped points in the Premier League and face a stiff challenge in the second-leg of Champions League Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich. There's a fear of finishing yet another season without a trophy. But according to Rush, the season is still a success irrespective of the trophies.
"I think yes. I think they have improved. Even if Liverpool don't win any trophy this season, I still think we have improved and Jurgen Klopp has done a fantastic job. You got to improve every year. Last time, we probably overachieved but the team has set a standard so you can't go below the standards."
Gary Neville, a familiar nemesis of Liverpool thanks to his exploits with Manchester United, said that Jurgen Klopp's side needs to go out against Bayern Munich in Champions League to focus completely on the league. As expected, Rush scorns at the suggestion.
"I don't know what he's talking about because why enter a competition when you don't want to win it. I don't think it would be a distraction. The only concern could be injuries but then it's just one game and we're in quarter-finals. It's just five games to the final and you're in the competition to win it so I would disagree with him," Rush said.
If Salah's goals shook the Kop last season, this time around a defender is earning the majority of plaudits from fans and experts for his terrific contribution at the back. Virgil van Dijk, who's a record signing for the club, has been a rock this season and his all-round skills have indicated that the Dutch defender could become of one of the legends of the game.
"Yeah, without doubt. He's the best player in the English Premier League," Rush said when he was asked pick his choice for the best player award this season in the Premier League. "I think Alisson has also done well but (I pick) Van Dijk, not only because how well he has played but for his organisation skills, and that's what makes him a standout player. He's one of the main reasons Liverpool have not let many goals."
Van Dijk's presence has improved the quality of defence for Liverpool significantly as in the last few seasons, the team was heavily criticised for leaking too many goals. It's clear that the other centre-backs like Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are not at Van Dijk's level but Rush believes it's not prudent to bring in another defender, but rather, the club should try to bolster the midfield next season.
"No maybe not a centre-back, but in the midfield. Maybe when Oxlade-Chamberlain, it will be like a new signing. If you ask me, we're not letting many goals in and if our strikers are not scoring then you need people to come in and score from the midfield. I mean we have got Shaqiri who can do that so for next year, it's just matter of getting the right blend," Rush said.
Rush's partnership with another Liverpool legend Sir Kenny Dalglish in the attack worked wonders for the club. On their best days, opponents were simply blown away by the duo, with Rush's finishing ably complementing the creative genius of Dalglish. When asked to pick one player from current footballers he would like as his strike partner, Rush said, "For me, last year Salah was the best and one of my favourites is Aguero. Sergio Aguero is a fantastic player, but he has been injured a lot, and Salah is number one because he's so quick with the ball."
Surely, there's some nervousness among Liverpool fans. It's been so long since the club lifted any trophies and this time, there's a real chance with the Premier League title. While Rush might say that the current campaign is still a success even if they don't win any titles, but just like any Liverpool fan, he would be hoping that this season is different. He would be hoping that this is not a repeat of 2008-09 and 2013-14.
With inputs from Ujwal Singh.