Philippe Coutinho was the most talented individual in the squad, Roberto Firmino was adored and Mohamed Salah was the new man on campus. Sadio Mane’s influence, though, was unrivalled.
Liverpool’s 2016/17 season had unravelled as soon as the 26-year-old had to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations as a possible Premier League title challenge swiftly became a final-day struggle to finish in the top four.
The January in which Mane had flown off on international duty was particularly grim: just one win in nine matches for the Reds, as well as exits from both the FA Cup and League Cup.
Mane started last season on fire, scoring in the opening three league matches against Watford, Crystal Palace, and Arsenal — his strike against the Gunners was glorious — and it once again looked as though he would be Jurgen Klopp’s star man.
Then the unfortunate but ultimately understandable sending off at Manchester City happened in September, essentially paving the way for a 5-0 defeat at the Etihad. Mane endured a stint ‘off the boil’ until the New Year.
A subsequent three-match suspension saw him lose momentum and a hamstring injury also stunted his progress. His below-par performances were summed up an inexplicable decision to shoot instead of lay on a tap-in for Firmino in the Merseyside derby at Anfield.
Liverpool drew the game 1-1 and much of the frustration was aimed in Mane’s direction. He was at a point at which his popularity had waned.
At the same time, Salah had quickly become the darling of the Kop, scoring for fun, while Brazilian pair Coutinho and Firmino were flying, prior to the former’s move to Barcelona. Mane was part of the much-praised ‘Fab Four’ but he felt like something of an odd one out at that point, having dipped by his very high standards.
The second half of the season was a far more productive one for the Senegalese who, despite poor all-round showing at Burnley on New Year’s Day, did fire home an unstoppable strike in an eventual 2-1 win.
A hat-trick in Porto in the Champions League Round of 16 was a clear sign that Mane was back. He went on to score in the quarter-final first leg at home to Manchester City, both ties against Roma and picked up the equaliser in the final defeat to Real Madrid.
As Salah and Firmino showed slight signs of tiring, Mane came to the fore, starting 25 of Liverpool’s 26 matches in 2018 and scoring on 13 occasions.
Mane looks to have taken that blistering late-season form through the summer and into the new season, not letting what was a relatively low-key World Cup for Senegal affect him.
Liverpool’s new number ten was in relentless form in last Sunday’s opening game against West Ham, scoring twice as Klopp’s men eased to a 4-0 victory. He looked like the player who deservedly won the club’s Player of the Year in his first season as a Red, and someone who is ready to be the main man again.
It is easy to take for granted just how good Mane has been for Liverpool, barring that aforementioned lull in the autumn and winter months of last year.
Not many tipped him to be such a roaring success when he arrived, with a certain snobbery surrounding the move because he joined from Southampton but he has evolved into one of Europe’s most deadly wide forwards.
There is no reason why Mane cannot match Salah’s quality and importance from this point on. He could even be an outside bet to win the Golden Boot. Perfect for Klopp’s style of play, he combines electrifying pace, calm finishing and an increasing ability to adopt a more central attacking role, showcasing his underrated playmaking skills.
All the talk will be about Salah again repeating his heroics of last season, Firmino leading the line in his own unique way and Naby Keita adding another dimension – it almost feels as though Mane is being slightly underrated now.
He is primed to explode in the coming weeks and months, however, and looks hungry to prove to the world that he is every bit as good as his fellow stellar teammates.
The early signs are more than promising.
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