Sadio Mane dreaming big as Champions League final offers chance to cap standout year

Victory against Real Madrid and Karim Benzema in the Champions League final would strengthen the case for calling Mane the player of the year so far

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Thursday 26 May 2022 22:31
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While Mohamed Salah pledged to be at Liverpool next season, Sadio Mane instead opted to tease and tantalise. They have been twinned in attack for years, Jurgen Klopp’s two top scorers and two inverted wingers, and the two Africans find themselves in a similar situation again. Each is out of contract in 2023. No deal has been agreed with either amid a sense of an impasse.

The Champions League final will not be a valedictory outing for the Egyptian. It still could for the Senegalese, whose admirers apparently include Bayern Munich. Yet while he was non-committal in one respect, he dropped a hint his future lies at Anfield. “Come back to me on Saturday and I will give you the best answer you want to hear, for sure,” Mane said. “It’s special. I will give you all you want to hear then.”

His 2022 is shaping up to be special, too. Liverpool’s hopes of a quadruple ended on Sunday. Mane could complete a personal quartet. For good measure, an Africa Cup of Nations winner also converted the penalty that booked his country a place at the World Cup, at the expense of Salah and Egypt. A scorer in the 2018 Champions League final and a winner in 2019 could add further silverware. “You have to dream big and I am a player who dreams big,” he added. It has felt a standout campaign, even in the context of his career. “I would say one of the best seasons…so far.”

Mane could add a fourth trophy of the season with his second Champions League

Factor in his stunning form, as if buoyed by his displays for Senegal, and there is a case for calling Mane the player of the calendar year so far, though his Real Madrid counterpart Karim Benzema is staking a compelling case of his own. And yet the recognition as the world’s best can be elusive. Mane finished fourth in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2019, but Africa has provided a solitary winner and none since the 1990s. Now, with the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo ending, this could be his chance. If, that is, an African can garner enough support.

“For me it would be even more special to have another bonus which is the Ballon d’Or, and I would be the most happy player in the world,” he said. “This cup, the Africa Cup of Nations, is one of the biggest for myself, it is the biggest trophy I have won in my life, and for an African player not to have won the Ballon d’Or since George Weah is sad for sure.”

Mane is a star but part of his value lies in the way he can be shunted around the side to accommodate others. He started on the right flank at Liverpool, shifted to the left when Salah arrived. Now he is making a success of his third position, proving prolific as a striker. “Since day one I spoke with the coach and I said: ‘I don’t mind what position I play.’ I’m happy to help the team. I think football is about joy so enjoy the moment.”

He has become Liverpool’s first-choice striker but deferred to their definitive false nine, Roberto Firmino. “We are unlucky with Bobby, who has many injuries [this season], but we all know Bobby’s qualities. Bobby is Bobby, the best No. 9 I’ve played with. He can get back his form, for sure.”

Mane equalised against Real Madrid in Kiev but admitted the Spanish club deserved to win

Firmino invariably tended to be outscored by Mane and Salah. Now the dynamic of the front three has shifted. The Senegalese has been Liverpool’s leading marksman since he returned from Africa. If Salah has understandably spoken of exacting “revenge” upon Real after the 2018 final, when he was injured by Sergio Ramos, Mane looks back with less anger. He scored in Kiev then and said: “It is not even in my mind to take revenge, to be honest. Real Madrid have always fully deserved to win that Champions League. They were the better team in the game.”

Whether Liverpool have been the superior side in their two finals of 2022 or not, both have gone the distance, to penalties. After taking two decisive spot kicks, in the African Cup of Nations and the World Cup play-off, Mane sauntered up for Liverpool’s fifth in the FA Cup, afforded the chance to win it. Instead, his Senegal team-mate Edouard Mendy saved it. Not that it will deter Mane from volunteering again. “There is a long story with Sadio and penalties but I never give up,” he said. “I will score the decisive penalty again.”

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