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Man City v Liverpool: 'Mohamed Salah must start at Wembley' – Danny Murphy analysis

Danny Murphy joins Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Micah Richards for Manchester City v Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-finals, live from Wembley Stadium. Coverage starts at 15:00 BST on Saturday on BBC One. Kick-off is at 15:30.

It is 753 minutes since Mohamed Salah’s last goal in open play for Liverpool but there is still absolutely no chance I would leave him out of Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City.

Ignoring penalties, Salah has not found the net with any of his past 38 efforts at goal over the past two months but he has to start at Wembley because he is a match-winner, and he has earned the right to play in big games like this one even if he is on a bad run.

Mohamed Salah's last goal from open play came against Norwich on 19 February
Mohamed Salah’s last goal from open play came in the 67th minute against Norwich on 19 February. Since then he has scored three penalties but this is his longest run of appearances without scoring an open play goal for Liverpool (10), as well as the longest in terms of minutes. His previous longest was nine appearances, between July and October 2020

I agree that he hasn’t been playing as well as he can do, but let’s not forget that since the 29-year-old Egyptian joined Liverpool in 2017, he has set standards with his goalscoring numbers above anything we thought could be possible.

We are judging him against his own ridiculous record and the fact his statistics over the past two months are more ordinary does not change the fact he is capable of scoring remarkable goals that no-one else on the pitch can, whoever the opposition are.

That in itself is enough of a reason to pick him, but on top of that you have to remember the effect his mere presence will have on City.

Regardless of whether Joao Cancelo, Nathan Ake or Oleksandr Zinchenko play at left-back for City this weekend, they would fear Salah at all times.

They all love to get forward themselves but they know that, when they do, they are leaving the Premier League’s best goalscorer behind them. That is a very different dynamic to anyone else they could go up against in Liverpool’s team.

While Salah didn’t score at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, he still had a huge impact on the game, not least with his perfect pass for Sadio Mane to make it 2-2 at the start of the second half.

I am expecting more of the same this time, and it would not surprise me at all if Salah actually scores the winner, because he has done it so many times before.

Graphic showing Mohamed Salah has scored 153 goals for Liverpool
Salah has scored 153 goals in in 243 games for Liverpool, winning the Golden Boot – or a share of it – as the Premier League’s leading scorer on two occasions

Liverpool need their expert link-man too

It is not just Salah whose place is in doubt. Jurgen Klopp has got some big decisions to make about who gets into his front three, because of the competition for places that first Diogo Jota and now Luis Diaz have brought to their attack.

Jota got the nod over Roberto Firmino to start against City last weekend. But I think what happened in that game means we might see more of Firmino this time.

Like Diaz, Jota has been a wonderful buy but neither of them can do the job that Firmino does for the team in keeping hold of the ball and getting it up the pitch.

Liverpool forward
Firmino has scored 98 goals in 322 games for Liverpool, compared with 34 in 73 by Jota – but the Brazilian is more renowned for his work outside the box

Jota got his goal against City, of course, but he also gave up possession a few times when he dropped into deeper areas to try to link play up.

Firmino is by far their best player at doing that and there were a few times on Sunday when it was very obvious he wasn’t there, in the pockets that he usually operates in.

It meant Liverpool lost the ball, and you cannot do that against a team as good as City and expect to keep getting away with it.

There are pros and cons, whoever you pick. Jota is obviously much more of a goal threat – Firmino’s scoring record is nowhere near as good – but if you go with his strength there, you miss out on what Firmino gives you outside the box, and vice versa.

Given the way the game is likely to go, and how important it will be to compete with City in the middle of the pitch, I think Firmino’s reliability at linking up Liverpool’s play will see him get the nod.

Subs will play a big part too

Salah and Mane both began Wednesday’s home Champions League game against Benfica on the bench and only came on for the last half an hour or so, on a night where the Reds were always comfortably ahead on aggregate.

In contrast, City had to travel to Madrid for a really intense encounter with Atletico where they got tested and pushed right to the limit until the very end.

We knew Atletico Madrid would come out aggressive – Pep Guardiola

The fact that Liverpool were able to rest and rotate their squad more than City did in midweek might only make a tiny difference to how things go this weekend, but it will be a factor. There is no way the tempo will be any less fierce than Sunday’s was, and players will tire as the game goes on.

It doesn’t mean you write City off, because we know how much quality they have got in their squad and the consistency they have shown with their high levels of performance over what is now a period of several years.

I also feel talk of fatigue can sometimes be overestimated anyhow because, as a player at this stage of the season, whether for Liverpool or City, you are playing for your place in the next game. You don’t want to rest; you want to play as much as you can.

Even so, when the teams are as good and as closely matched as these two are, then you look for any area where one can have an advantage – and Liverpool being even a little fresher probably makes them slight favourites this time.

Man City v Liverpool was on a ‘different level’ – Klopp

For both teams, though, how they use their substitutes is going to be vital, not even from a tactical perspective but from a physical one.

The decisions will be: When do you change things, who do you change and how do they impact the game?

Whichever manager gets that right – whether it be Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola – is probably going to win the game, because I’d be amazed if a substitute didn’t affect the outcome of this semi-final in a big way.

Danny Murphy was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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