“Today we talk about Messi and Neymar but honestly I don’t think these players are as good as Sadio Mane.”
That was the view of Mady Touré, the Liverpool forward’s former coach, who looked like he was prone to hyperbole when he uttered those words five years ago. Now the big talk carries at least a hint of truth.
Mane’s 20th goal of the season – his 17th in the Premier League – which got Liverpool going at Fulham, means Messi is one of only three players in the big European leagues to have netted more than the Senegal star’s nine goals in 2019. Spain call-up Jaime Mata has one more for Getafe, while Messi and Kylian Mbappe have netted 11 in leagues their sides are walking.
Liverpool most certainly do not have that luxury, and though they returned to the top of the Premier League table, the Reds were once again indebted to Mane. The 26-year-old helped create the opener he scored before rescuing his side – three team-mates in particular – on the banks of the Thames by winning a late penalty to keep afloat their title ambitions.
Without Mane’s intervention, today and over recent weeks, Liverpool’s hopes would surely have run aground. The 26-year-old took his tally to 11 goals in 11 games, with Mane’s strikes making a crucial difference to the outcome in just over half of those matches.
It is not enough yet to make Mane the highest scorer even in his own team, but no player in the Premier League has netted more goals from open play. Mane drew level with Mo Salah on 17 goals – all but one have come in open play – while Sergio Aguero remains one ahead in the race for the Golden Boot. Judging from Salah’s performance at Craven Cottage, last season’s top scorer was fighting for that individual title as well as the Premier League prize.
Especially during a second half in which Liverpool failed miserably to make their dominance pay, the Egyptian made too many decisions that appeared not to prioritise side before self. Goalscorers by nature are ruthlessly one-eyed but Salah’s determination to break a goalless run that now stretches into seven games appeared to cross the line into greedy.
The contrast between Salah and Mane was stark. On the hour, before the hosts had offered even a hint of spoiling Liverpool’s Sunday stroll, Salah led a Liverpool counter attack that produced a five-on-three in the Reds’ favour. The Egyptian neglected to pass, instead allowing himself to be smothered by the retreating Cottagers. When the roles were reversed late on, Mane chose the perfect time and weight of pass to play Salah in, but the Reds’ striker failed to apply the finishing touch that would have brought his 50th Premier League goal. He has been stranded on 49 since February 9 – a fact he appears all too aware of.
2018-2019 so far…
1. Sadio Mane – 17
2. Sergio Aguero – 16
3. Mohamed Salah – 14
4. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 14
5. Harry Kane – 13
Out of Sadio’s 17 goals, 0 have been penalties. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/9bvQS6r3BR
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) March 17, 2019
Salah’s current struggles in front of goal are not a concern for Jurgen Klopp if you take the Liverpool manager at his word. “Salah was the best player on the pitch,” said Klopp after the 3-1 win at Bayern Munich in midweek – but it was Mane who made the difference with two goals.
His first, a dink after Cruyff-turning goalkeeping revolutionary Manuel Neuer, summed up Mane’s current form, and though his opener today was far simpler in its execution, it owed more to his drive and speed of both thought and movement. With Fulham’s defenders reluctant to stray beyond the width of their 18-yard-box and their wide midfielders equally hesitant to track runners, Liverpool made a point of switching play as quickly and as directly as possible. After Andrew Robertson had proved wasteful on more than one occasion, Mane drifted to the left before darting towards goal and exchanging passes with Roberto Firmino, who teed up a simple side-foot finish.
Mane went closest to adding to Liverpool’s lead when they were dominant, with his run across a static Fulham line to meet a corner resulting in his header bouncing off the top of the bar. At the time, Liverpool’s profligacy seemed to matter little such was their dominance, but after James Milner, Virgil van Dijk and Alisson all boobed to present Ryan Babel with a goal he seemed reluctant to take, the Reds’ need for a second immediately became dire.
Fortunately, so was Sergio Rico’s handling. When the Fulham keeper let Salah’s weak effort slip from his gloves, he attempted to redeem himself by taking a firmer grasp of Mane as he nudged the ball away from goal. How typical of the Premier League’s nicest club to reciprocate Liverpool’s generosity within seven minutes?
Milner atoned for his earlier error by dispatching the penalty, but Mane was again the hero. The Senegal striker isn’t the biggest star in his own team, but no one is shining brighter in the Premier League right now.