The Senegalese has returned from becoming an Africa Cup of Nations winner to find things are a little different at Liverpool, but he has adapted to the changes impressively
When Sadio Mane scored in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Chelsea on January 2, his final match before heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations, it was his first goal in 10 matches.
As confidence boosters go it wasn’t a bad one.
Mane would then start and end that tournament in Cameroon by converting high pressure penalties, firstly a winner deep into stoppage time in Senegal’s opening match of the group stages against Zimbabwe, and lastly the perfectly struck spot kick that ended the shootout against Egypt and made his nation African champions for the very first time.
It was a magical moment for Mane, and one that was celebrated by everyone at Liverpool who has witnessed him be such a crucial part of the recent successes – albeit with those celebrations taking place well outside of Mo Salah’s earshot.
Of course, the predicted collapse while the strike pair were away in Cameroon didn’t occur for Liverpool, who made up ground in the Premier League title race and advanced in both the FA and League Cups ahead of winning the latter.
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After the final Salah was understandably brought back into the fold a little sooner than Mane, but then by the time the new African champion was back in a Liverpool shirt at Burnley last month he was able to survey a scene which had shifted somewhat in his absence .
But it may well have shifted to his advantage.
During and just after AFCON it was Diogo Jota who was taking the striking limelight for Liverpool, and earning a new song from the Kop as he did so.
The Portuguese’s ability to drift in from the left toward goal or prove so deadly from central areas is what has marked him out as such a good signing, with the former Wolves man becoming the first player to disrupt the famed Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino front three and look completely at home at the club as he did so.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to do a passable Salah impression on the right hand side during the two Premier League games the Egyptian missed, with the Englishman scoring in both, but in most eyes it was now three from Mane, Salah, Firmino and Jota, and that looked perfectly fine to challenge on all fronts that lay ahead of Liverpool.
Then came Luis Diaz.
The exciting Colombian has immediately become a fan favorite due to the fact that pretty much everything he seems to do gets you off your feet, and so now suddenly three from four has become three from five.
But even though it doesn’t seem like that makes sense this new equation could actually prove to be a positive for Mane, who like Salah will be out of contract at Liverpool in the summer of 2023, although there is far less of an obsession over his expiring deal.
Injuries to Jota and Firmino in the game that followed that Burnley clash, the ultimately crucial 2-0 Champions League win at Inter Milan, meant that Jurgen Klopp was suddenly down to three from three again, but in deciding to play Mane in the center of the front three and leave Salah on the right (the pair have played in the opposing positions under the German) he may well have hit upon a successful formula going forward.
Playing as the No.9 ever since, Mane has scored four goals in five starts, each of them predatory penalty area finishes – with an overhead kick thrown in for good measure at home to Norwich.
For so long viewed as a pacy and direct winger, Mane’s movement in the box and finishing ability have always been somewhat underplayed, and as he approaches 30 next month this move into the center could end up being one that kicks on a new phase of his career.
Even though Diaz has settled in so quickly coming from the left, the only position Klopp has played him in, he is still likely to need rotating in and out of the side, as is Jota who hasn’t quite looked the same since his recent injury.
The two of them could end up sharing those wide left duties until the end of the season, whenever that comes for Liverpool, moving Mane into the middle and essentially placing him in competition with Firmino.
The Brazilian is still good enough to have his moments, and he’ll have a big role to play in the remainder of the campaign, but with his role as a first-choice now gone and his contract also running out in 2023, it looks fairly obvious which horse Liverpool will back if it comes to a straight choice between him and Mane.
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Playing centrally isn’t a new thing for the former Southampton man, and we have seen flashes of it in a Liverpool shirt before, but after he stayed there at home to Inter when Jota played this now looks a very deliberate move from Klopp.
It is one that could just ensure that a new-look Mane will be given the chance to stick around at Liverpool for a while longer.
A reinvention as a penalty box predator could be well underway, and Mane’s already glittering Anfield career may yet have new heights to scale.