When I said earlier this week that Sadio Mane will have to get past me before he ever leaves Liverpool, I was only half joking.
I may not be able to shadow world-class strikers as much as in my prime, but in Mane’s case an exception can be made. Any club trying to lure him from Anfield this summer ought to face a blockade. Mane is my favourite Liverpool player of the Jurgen Klopp era - often underrated and underestimated.
Since January, the tendency to overlook him while Mohamed Salah grabbed all the attention has slightly changed. If Mane continues his current form he may help inspire Liverpool to four trophies, including the FA Cup against Chelsea this weekend. He will also be the Premier League’s most likely winner of the 2022 Ballon d’Or.
The rules of the competition have been altered. When the nominees are considered, judgement will be based on performances across a European season rather than a calendar year. Which English-based player has had a bigger impact on the domestic and world stage in this campaign?
Mane scored Senegal’s winning penalty in the African Cup of Nations, and repeated the trick to take his country to the World Cup. He must be a frontrunner.
Playing a pivotal role in Liverpool’s quadruple bid may not have been enough to secure domestic Player of the Year ahead of Salah, but that vote was clearly based more on form during the first half of the season. The FA Cup and upcoming Champions League final are the last chance for World Player of the Year candidates to make their case. Providing the votes are based solely on football criteria - and there is no guarantee of that based on recent Ballon d’Or winners - it already looks like a shoot-out between Mane and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. That means there may be more at stake than a Champions League winners’ medal when they meet in Paris.
Performing where it truly matters on a cup-final stage makes a permanent impression. Yet it is typical of Mane that he tends to be an afterthought in such conversations. From the day he arrived at Liverpool, it has felt like he has been misjudged.
When Mane joined Liverpool in June, 2016, I gave my immediate verdict on the deal via social media.
“I think £30 million is expensive,” I wrote.
That tweet has not aged well. Neither have many of the responses agreeing with it. There was a consensus that Mane was overpriced. His fee from Southampton was widely reported to be £37m. When I spoke to Liverpool’s chief executive at the time, Ian Ayre, he was keen to stress the cost was nearer £32m. The distinction was important because the higher figure would have made Mane Liverpool’s most expensive ever signing, and many recent record Anfield purchases such as Christian Benteke and Andy Carroll had failed to live up to their price tag.
It shows how unsure I was about how good Mane was that the cost of the deal was concerning.
When players perform as Mane has, there appears to be a collective amnesia of how the deal was perceived when it was announced.
The same applies when Salah signed from Roma, and even Virgil Van Dijk’s recruitment from Southampton.
All three were known to Premier League fans, managers and scouts. Any of the top four could have had them, but there were enough doubts around to cause others to hesitate to Liverpool’s benefit. The Klopp effect took all of them to a level few anticipated.
Today, it seems ridiculous for supporters or pundits to be quibbling over that extra £5m for Mane. Whatever he cost Liverpool, he was a bargain. He was the first big purchase of the Klopp era and has set the tone for the excellent recruitment ever since.
Without Mane being so good, Liverpool would not have qualified for the Champions League at the end of his first season, which enabled Klopp to lure Salah and Van Dijk, and then later Alisson Becker and Fabinho. Mane’s excellence was the catalyst at a key point in Klopp’s rebuilding process.
If his profile has not been the same as Salah’s in the last four years, that has much to do with Mane’s selfless approach to his team-mate’s extraordinary goal feats. Mane was Liverpool’s player of the year in his first season playing on the right of a three-man attack. He announced himself at Liverpool with a brilliant debut goal against Arsenal, cutting in from the right wing and finding the top corner with his left foot.
Left, right or number nine, Mane is comfortable delivering goals and assists
When Salah signed, Mane switched to the left. On the first day of his second season, away at Watford, Mane cut in from the left side and found the top corner with his right foot.
Since Luis Diaz signed in January, Mane has moved position again, playing as a number 9. As he again demonstrated with a brilliant header against Aston Villa in midweek, he is comfortable in that position, consistently delivering goals and assists. Mane has eight goals in his last 11 games.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel can only look in envy at the attacking riches Klopp has at his disposal heading into their latest Wembley meeting. Chelsea have a different profile up front. As was the case before the League Cup final, Tuchel must decide whether to use Romelu Lukaku or play a ‘false nine’. Tactically, it is more difficult for Tuchel without a forward like Mane or Salah, but he has shown before - not least in the Champions League final last May - that he can make it work. It still feels like he will be seeking another solution before the start of next season. Will Chelsea even be monitoring Mane’s situation and thinking: 'If Liverpool can’t afford to pay him what he wants to sign another deal, we might as well join the long queue for his signature?'
That sounds unrealistic, but when it was suggested Bayern Munich were interested in signing Mane this summer, my first reaction was ‘what club in the world wouldn’t be?’ If Mane leaves Liverpool, you would expect Real Madrid and Barcelona to be making enquiries, too, because world-class forwards with his pace, skill and versatility are so rare. Mane could fit into any profile of a team. That cannot be said of all modern strikers.
The battle between Mane and his international team-mate Edouard Mendy was one of the most memorable of the Carabao Cup Final. Mendy produced a series of brilliant saves to stop Mane being the match-winner.
It was a thou-shall-not-pass approach Liverpool would be wise to replicate should anyone bid for Mane this summer.