To describe Sadio Mane as the weak link in Liverpool’s attack may seem overly critical, but after coming in and out of the side during the start of the season, the Senegal international’s form since recovering his role on the left-hand side has paled in comparison to Roberto Firmino’s and Mohamed Salah, undoubtedly amongst world football’s best in their respective positions during this moment.
Indeed, since his last Champions League outing against CSKA Moscow in December, the Reds speedster had found just two goals in all competitions. Compare that to Firmino with nine goals during the same time frame, alongside five assists, and Salah with an incredible twelve strikes and four setups. If Liverpool were to make one addition to their front-line this summer, current form suggests it would be at Mane’s expense.
But attacking players are inevitably confidence players, and sometimes it takes just one performance to rediscover the powers of old, the kind of powers we saw from Mane last season when his presence was so intrinsic to Liverpool’s results – Jurgen Klopp’s side didn’t actually pick up a Premier League victory without the African forward until April, and their win-rate dropped by 26% across all competitions when he wasn’t in the side.
That’s exactly what happened last night against FC Porto, as Liverpool recorded a huge 5-0 win over the Portuguese side on their own patch to secure a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League barring an incredible comeback in the reverse fixture at Anfield. Amid the demolition job, Mane bagged a hat-trick with just four shots at goal.
It must be said that there was an element of good fortune in the 25-year-old’s route to the match ball; his first goal was a calm and composed strike, but the curling effort slipped under the Porto goalkeeper’s body, while his second was a rebound from a Firmino shot that Jose Sa parried straight into his path.
But Mane deserved his luck last night. Whether running with the ball or pressing the defence off of it, the 48-cap international always works hard for the cause and that was the case against FC Porto, Mane completing two dribbles and helping to set up counter-attacks with three huge tackles.
By the time of Mane’s third goal, it was easy to tell his confidence had restored. Galloping forward on the break, the wide forward latched onto a Danny Ings pass and rifled the ball home from just outside the box, giving the Porto ‘keeper no chance of saving it.
That’s the kind of relentless threat we consistently saw from Mane last season, and the kind of quality that puts him on parity with Firmino and Salah when in top form.