It’s an elite club. Only four players have reached double figures for goals in the Premier League in each of the last five seasons, including 2018/19. While the achievements of Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane are diluted by their status as the striking figureheads of Big Six clubs, Romelu Lukaku and Sadio Mane have consistently scored goals for mid-table clubs and then almost seamlessly translated that form to the next level. Of that quartet, Mane’s inclusion is by far the most eye-catching as he has rarely played as an out-and-out striker.
It also stands out because you might have expected that fourth slot to be taken by Eden Hazard. But while he and his Chelsea teammates were taking a year off in 2015/16, Mane was busy finishing the season as Southampton’s top scorer and making his £34m promotion to Liverpool almost a foregone conclusion.
As ever, the Senegalese had delivered. Not just goals, but energy, endeavour and creativity. Any doubts about his suitability for a bigger club were destroyed by five goals in two late-season victories over Liverpool and Manchester City. He was ready.
On the day he signed for the Reds, Jurgen Klopp explained that he had been tracking Mane “since his impressive performances in the Olympics in 2012”. He had then watched him score 42 goals in two seasons for Red Bull Salzburg and had personally spoken to him about a transfer to Borussia Dortmund in 2016. “I have made a few mistakes in my life and one of my biggest mistakes ever was not taking Sadio when I was at Dortmund,” explained Klopp earlier this year. Instead, Mane forced through a move to Southampton, played there for two seasons and then moved again to Klopp’s Liverpool.
After another two years at Anfield, he reportedly agreed a transfer to Real Madrid – ‘everything was solidly laced up’, according to France Football last summer – to complete an astonishing rise from the Austrian Bundesliga to the kings of Europe, via two Premier League stepping stones.
The pesky fly in the ointment was the departure of Zinedine Zidane from Madrid; the bad news for Liverpool is that Zidane is back. And reports in Spain – the front cover of Marca tells you that this is no casual interest – suggest that the Frenchman still aggressively covets Mane. Those who point to Mane’s new contract and all of his effusive words about this wonderful club are obviously newcomers to elite football.
Today’s front page from Marca: Liverpool have no intention of selling Sadio Mane, one of the most important players in their squad. There are no loopholes in his contract that Real Madrid could exploit. The interest simply shows how good Mane has become 🔴 pic.twitter.com/wZU4LwxyER
— Dominic King (@DominicKing_DM) March 25, 2019
The predictable briefing from Liverpool is that Mane is not for sale, but flirtation from Real absolutely will not go away. While there were inevitable claims of Madrid interest in 44-goal Mo Salah last summer, there was always a suspicion that the Egyptian was merely enjoying a purple patch; it was 20-goal Mane and his impressive back catalogue that made him the more realistic and tempting target. If a footballer can play at three different clubs, in two different countries, for three different managers, and consistently impress over a period of six years, you can be almost certain that he will do the same for your club, in your country, under your management. Such consistency and adaptability is far more valuable than any goal spurt.
“I can’t think of a single club anywhere in Europe that wouldn’t want a player like Sadio available to them,” said Klopp in November, and that was when he had scored just six goals in the opening 12 Premier League games of Liverpool’s season. Since then he has added another 11 top-flight goals as well as two priceless strikes against Bayern Munich. Now every single club everywhere in Europe would want Mane, although perhaps only a handful could be seen as a promotion from Liverpool. The problem for the Reds is that one of those is Real Madrid.
The statistics suggest that Mane is basically playing the same football for Liverpool as he did for Southampton, with the only real change being the quality of his teammates and thus his chances. Even in a season which has seen him equal his best Liverpool total in March, the only real difference is that he is taking better shots. Not more, just better. “Sadio played pretty much always like this, but now he’s always in the right spot in the right moment. In football it’s sometimes like this,” said his manager earlier this month.
The rate of Mane’s current scoring has been described on these pages as ‘unsustainable’. But it’s not this ‘unsustainable’ patch that makes him a serious target for Real Madrid, it’s the last seven years. If his eighth year as a senior professional begins and ends on Merseyside then this ambitious club really has entered a new era.