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15th Mar 2019

Sadio Mane: Liverpool’s man on fire

Melissa Reddy

Is he messing?

There is a billboard in Dakar emblazoned with #WeLoveSadio, followed by the words ‘De tout coeur derrière notre Lion’ – wholeheartedly behind our lion.

In Senegal’s capital, a near 500-mile journey north of the birthplace of Liverpool’s match-winner against Bayern Munich, and the area where his desire to be a professional footballer was cemented from the age of 15, time seemed to momentarily freeze on Wednesday night.

With Rafinha so easily and emphatically shrugged off by Mane’s speed and strength as the forward controlled a long, floated Virgil van Dijk  delivery, the city fell silent for a few seconds.

“Everyone was on their feet and it was quiet,” says Pape Dia, whose eyes were transfixed on the giant projectors at Le Korbi. “We knew he was going to score. We didn’t care that he still had so much to do, we knew. He is our Sadio Mane and our Sadio Mane can do these things.”

The silence was not on account of anxiousness, but expectation and appreciation. The moments that followed were pure artistry, a melding of wonder and will. Mane swivelled away from Manuel Neuer with such ruthlessness that obituaries for the German’s status as one of the world’s best in his position were being bashed into keyboards far and wide.

The nonchalant manner in which Liverpool’s No.10 clipped his finish into the far post, dissecting Rafinha and Niklas Sule and beating Mats Hummels to nestle in that bottom corner, was breathtaking.

Just as those watching in Dakar had the conviction he would score, so too did the Senegal international.

This is Sadio Mane and Sadio Mane can do these things.

Inside the Allianz Arena, the flight of the ball towards goal seemed to occur in slow motion before delirium coloured the away end.

“Is he messing, lad? He is absolutely messing!”

The consensus amongst the home supporters, meanwhile, was a simple Scheiße!

James Milner called Mane’s opener “very naughty”, adding: “The way he took it was ridiculous. That’s the quality he’s got.”

Showing himself

Turn to anyone who has seen the player’s brilliance at close quarters – from Pa Malang, Jules Bouchez and Mady Toure, who recruited him for the esteemed Generation Foot academy, to those at Metz, Red Bull Salzburg, Southampton and Anfield – and they will, to borrow Jürgen Klopp parlance, ‘sing a song’ about Sadio.

In Senegal, as one diplomat put it, he is “a natural treasure”.

Quiet and modest, Mane morphs into a fiercely ambitious, confident, shrewd character when it comes to football. He has always been that way.

“I want to play, I want to show myself,” is a phrase the 26-year-old has used for over a decade. First, when he showed up to Generation Foot for trials in old, torn boots with normal shorts on as he couldn’t afford football ones, and at every juncture since.

He showed himself at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday with two Champions League goals. Last season in the competition, he scored against Sevilla and Spartak Moscow, a hat-trick against Porto, Manchester City, Roma home and away, as well as in the final against Real Madrid.

With seven goals on the road in Europe’s premier competition, no player has managed more for Liverpool in their history.

In the league, he has done damage against the club’s main rivals, bar Chelsea. Four goals against Arsenal, two in the Merseyside derby as well as against City and Tottenham, with a strike against Manchester United too.

The Red Devils twice unsuccessfully tried to sign Mane under Louis van Gaal, while Mauricio Pochettino was devastated that he had chosen Liverpool over Spurs in June 2016.

Klopp, having been an admirer of Senegal’s “little diamond” since the London Olympics in 2012, had the advantage over his counterparts.

Two years later, before Mane left Salzburg for Southampton, he turned down a lucrative contract with Spartak Moscow in order to meet with the then Borussia Dortmund manager.

Klopp viewed the speedster, adept in every single attacking position, as the perfect fit for his black-and-yellow blitzing machine.

BVB, however, did not have the budget to meet Salzburg’s asking price, but a further two years on, Liverpool didn’t flinch in parting with £30million for him.

The recruitment team, headed by Michael Edwards, didn’t just have their extensive scouting dossiers on Mane to convince them he was worth it, but Klopp’s personal assessments too.

Time in the sun

Voted the club’s Player of the Season for 2016-17 during his debut campaign, the “machine” as Pep Lijnders labelled him, has since seen Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson steal the headlines at different times.

Mane deserves his extended spell in the sun; his glistening performances and decisive goals celebrated, his importance to Liverpool crystallised.

At Melwood he is worshipped during lean periods too because he is an “all-round threat”. It’s not just about his pace or skill, but his tactical intelligence and ability to effect Klopp’s instructions regardless of where he is asked to play. His defensive diligence and understanding of how to manipulate space for his benefit and that of his teammates is also vital.

Mane is always moving, always an option. He never hides, even after missed chances. Much like Raheem Sterling, the Senegalese can be unfairly judged on the opportunities he doesn’t take rather than the countless more he creates or converts.

Mane is nightmarish for defenders because he is forever getting into dangerous positions and is so balanced that it is hard to predict what he is going to do. Two-footed and equally troublesome cutting inside or going outside, in the dribble or threading a pass, he also has the capacity to do the unthinkable.

That pirouette around Neuer; the backheeled, chipped finish against Watford; the way he toyed with Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers before chopping between both Arsenal defenders as he cut in from the right and located the top corner on his Liverpool debut…

It’s no wonder Real Madrid circled around him before he extended his commitment to the Anfield side in November and Paris Saint-Germain put out feelers to his people too.

As Klopp stated following the announcement of the contract extension, “I can’t think of a single club anywhere in Europe that wouldn’t want a player like Sadio available to them, so the fact he wants to remain with us says something about where we are currently.

“He is a such an important member of our team and squad. He radiates joy and I think this is reflected in his performances and impact on the pitch.

“The only criticism I could ever have of Sadio is that maybe at times he is the only one not to see just how good he is – but as an attacking player he is the complete package.

“He made a big impact when he first arrived, but if anything he’s got better and better each season. His trajectory has only been upwards in terms of his level and his contribution.

“Maybe the other thing which is lost on some who don’t know Sadio is just how ambitious and hungry he is to achieve things and be successful. He is more driven than I think many will be aware of.”

There is a particular joy to Mane being so instrumental for Liverpool in the Champions League. It is the competition he grew up pretending he was playing in on the streets of Bambali and one he is still obsessed with.

Ask him about any of the matchdays in the tournament and he’ll be able to detail the major moments microscopically. That will be no surprise to the people who know him well considering the amount of football he consumes.

The game, religion and family is the axis around which Sadio’s life revolves and his love for the simple things away from the pitch is matched by his execution of the audacious on it.

Porto are up next for Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals; they know all too well about Mane’s messing on the main stage.