By ‘The Don’ – @donkopleone
As Liverpool lost at the hands of Unai Emery’s Sevilla team in the 2016 Europa League final, an ever-inflating bubble of red optimism seemed to momentarily burst.
Despite significant improvement after Jurgen Klopp had replaced Brendan Rodgers, this side would be without continental football in the 2016/17 season for the third time in five years, after a run of fifteen successive European campaigns.
Not only was this disappointing from a competitive standpoint, but it reduced both the club’s financial muscle and pulling power in regards to player recruitment. And the performance in the final had highlighted some glaring issues which would need to be addressed if Klopp’s new side were to compete again.
Within days of the loss in Basel further disappointment arrived – it emerged that former Klopp player and World Cup winner Mario Gotze would not be joining the Merseyside outfit, his desire for Champions League football overruling the temptation to reunite with his former manager.
Liverpool were forced to turn to Southampton’s Sadio Mané, quickly wrapping up a deal for their primary alternative to Gotze, who returned to Borussia Dortmund. At £34million, Mané became the club’s second most expensive signing ever and his arrival was generally well-received, even if some sections of the fanbase remained frustrated that Klopp would not work again with the golden boy he had been so crucial in developing at Dortmund.
Mané was coming off a return of 18 goal contributions in the Premier League for the Saints, including a brace as he had helped overturn a 2-0 deficit against his new Liverpool teammates. The year before, he had registered 14 goal contributions in his first year in the Premier League.
It was clear that he had the numbers in him, although some doubters cited consistency concerns, which had supposedly led to manager Ronald Koeman dropping him on occasion.
Fast forward a year however, and Mané had no doubters left. With 13 goals in just 27 league appearances, he ended the season as Liverpool’s joint-top scorer – level with Phillipe Coutinho – as the Reds secured a return to Champions League football.
His stoppage time derby winner at Goodison Park was one of the club’s moments of the season and, if only an injury in the reverse fixture hadn’t ended the Senegalese’s campaign, he may well have notched twenty goals.
That summer, rumours that Coutinho would leave the club for Barcelona plagued Anfield, threatening to unsettle the balance and chemistry that he, Mané and his compatriot Roberto Firmino had formed in a new-look Kop attack. Coutinho ultimately stayed until the January of 2018, and the signing of Mohamed Salah from Roma saw Mané switch from the right flank to the left of Liverpool’s front line.
Mané started the new season in this new role with two goals in two, before again scoring and playing a key role in a 4-0 home thrashing of a woeful Arsenal side. Ian Wright commented after the game, that if Coutinho was indeed leaving England for the reported £100million, Mané may well be worth £150million if not more.
This struck me. I don’t always agree with Ian Wright or think that he is the best pundit the game has to offer, but this was an admission from a rival fan that in Sadio Mané we had found ourselves a world-class player.
The rest of the season it would be fair to say that the Senegalese was somewhat overshadowed by his fellow African, Salah. The Egyptian secured a record goal tally for a Premier League player in just his first season at Anfield, more than trebling Mané’s league output of 10.
Moreover, with Roberto Firmino enjoying his most prolific season in English football, while also gaining increasing recognition for his relentless energy, Mané became the least-discussed member of Liverpool’s attacking trio.
Perhaps this was unfair. Despite that initial flurry, his reduced goal return was largely the result of a relative drop in form between September and December – a period in which he may well have been still fully recovering from that injury he sustained against Everton. Or maybe it required time for him to perfect playing on the left as he had the right. Either way, once the intensity of two games per week kicked in, Sadio needed a few months to regain top form.
Once he found that top form though, Mané was once again lethal. 70% of his goals in the 2017/18 season came in the latter half of the season, with seven of his 20 in all competitions coming in the seven Champions League knockout ties in which he played. A hat-trick in a 5-0 win in Porto stood out – the Portuguese side had never before conceded more than three goals at home in European competition, but they had never before faced Sadio Mané.
His hot streak had started on New Year’s Day with a crucial goal against Burnley, and continued into the next gameweek as Liverpool became the first side to topple Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the league that season. Both strikes were venomous and from distance on his ‘weaker’ left foot.
If Salah was becoming the consistent goal-getter in this frontline newly sans-Coutinho, and Firmino was the supremely talented worker bee, Mané was the player who could change any match at any moment, just as the diminutive Brazilian had been able to before him.
Within his first season, Sadio had become part of the elite group of players to have registered a goal in every single round of the competition. This feat includes, obviously, a goal in the final, which he scored in Kiev against Real Madrid – a smart equaliser, cancelling out Loris Karius’ inexplicable error.
After Gareth Bale’s spectacular overhead kick had put the Spanish side back in front, Mané struck the post from the edge of the penalty area. He was Liverpool’s shining attacking light after Mo Salah was forced to exit the biggest stage in club football.
With Mané delivering a superb performance as the only member of Jurgen Klopp’s regular frontline to take part in this season’s miraculous semi-final comeback against Barcelona, his side found themselves back in the Champions League final in 2019.
While the Senegalese could not score himself on this occasion, it was he who won the early penalty which set the Reds on their way to No.6. In a game lacking in significant moments of attacking quality, a dazzling second half run to set up a James Milner chance was possibly the best offensive moment of the match. Then, for a second successive season, Sadio Mané was Liverpool’s best attacking player in a Champions League final, and this time he was able to lift the much-deserved trophy.
In the league, of course, Mané shone just as brightly as Mohamed Salah this campaign. The African pair shared the golden boot come the end of the season, and Mané led the league outright in terms of non-penalty goals.
Despite being just 5”9, Mané scored six headed goals in the league, which was the joint highest tally alongside Chris Wood, 6”4, and Aleksandar Mitrovic, 6”2. It is testament to the quality of Mané’s movement that he has managed to become a prolific aerial threat.
In this day and age, it is well known that the term ‘legend’ is too often chucked about in football media. Furthermore, with Mané’s Liverpool career only three years old, it may be too soon to put him even near this bracket.
However, in winning the greatest prize in club football, Mané’s time at Anfield has a trophy to show for it. Even if Fernando Torres’ exit tainted his legacy at the club, many consider the Spaniard to be on the edge of Kopite folklore – and he never touched silverware while in Liverpool red.
As Jamie Carragher noted on a Monday Night Football earlier this year, when Sadio Mané joined Liverpool the club was the eighth best side in England. The Senegalese’s arrival was the catalyst for Kop progression:
– Season one, reach the Champions League.
– Season two, challenge for the Champions League.
– Season three, win the Champions League.
Mané recently affirmed that he has no desire to play elsewhere, because Liverpool are “the sexy club” in European football right now.
And if he is to stay on a few more years, he is sure to find himself adorned in club history.