Bursting onto the scene at Liverpool in the 2016/17 season, the electric-heeled Sadio Mané was equally as rapid as he was quick to make himself known at the club. With 13 goals in his first 29 games for his new side, it became swiftly apparent that the former Southampton man was something of a bargain; despite his sizeable £32.5 million price tag.
As a much-needed injection of punishing pace in Jürgen Klopp’s side, Sadio’s exploits on the right wing saw Liverpool to both a fourth place finish as well as a spot in the Champions League. A good year all ’round it’d be fair to say, capped off by his 94th minute winner against Everton in the merseyside derby – forever immortalising him in Kopite folklore.
This season however, just when we thought the Senegalese was settled and primed to shift up into the next gear, he who so often had been the best player on the pitch last year has planted his feet and reared dramatically. Though Klopp and co. have resisted against being thrown to the dirt, the Reds’ manager’s continued faith in Mané has produced far from an easy ride.
Following three goals in the first three games of the season against Watford. Arsenal and Crystal Palace, everything was set for business to resume as usual for Mané. Yet, following his controversial sending-off against Manchester City and a subsequent injury, the form which had (at times) carried us to Europe last year had seemingly all but disappeared. Though a couple of recently crucial goals against Manchester City and Burnley have served as reminders of the winger’s quality, his overall performances have been a distant far-cry from that which we knew he can typically produce.
‘XG’ pedlars have been typically despondent in their acknowledgement of Mané’s recent poor form. Instead preferring to claim that this season’s data irrefutably proves that, whilst Sadio’s games-to-goal ratio has dipped, the winger was maintaining his chance creation at an elite level.
And they’re correct. He is.
Yet, football isn’t dictated by statistics. Instead, positive results are typically inherent of positive football. Bar Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce, most managers encourage their players to play with this in mind – particularly Klopp.
You need only watch a single of Mané’s post-September performances to see that all has not been right, that his football was far from positive. Slow to the ball, poor in his touch and more content in passing back than pushing forward, Mané’s general play had taken more than a step in a negative direction. The man who almost single-handedly carried us to Champions League football last year was found wanting. The question however: why?
Lazy journalism tossed the prospect of Mohammed Salah’s remarkable introduction into the ring – claiming the Egyptian’s form had thrown Sadio to the wayside somewhat. Yet this was never the case. The two seem firm friends both on and off the pitch, and a little competition between two players quite as dynamic as this pair is far from a negative situation to have at a club. To quote our number 19 on Salah in a recent interview:
“He’s my closest friend here! No rivalry, we are brothers and friends.”
But, in Portugal last Wednesday night, something unexpected happened. In arguably the biggest game of his fledgling Liverpool career, Mané rose to the occasion like never before:
Sadio Mane's game by numbers vs. Porto:
37 (79%) passes completed
3 tackles won
2 take-ons completed
1 chance created
The fourth Liverpool player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League pic.twitter.com/vUHGbV9puZ
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 14, 2018
In netting his first hat-trick for Liverpool, Mané additionally propelled his side to their 5-0 thumping of the Portuguese champions, Porto, in the Champions League round of 16. Consequentially, our winger has not only set-up a comfortable-looking home leg, but has become the first player for the club to ever score a hat-trick in the knockout stages of the lucrative competition.
What has caused this return to form can only be theorised, though perhaps it was an opportunity to showcase his talent on the biggest stage of them all, on the biggest night of his career (so far) that might see Sadio Mané return to the world-beater he was last campaign.
And what good timing it would be too.
If he can replicate the speed, positivity and ruthlessness of his performance last week, then perhaps he could be the final piece of the puzzle in the broader picture that is Liverpool’s sixth Champions League success.