Thursday, October 6, 2022

Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah may have handed Liverpool an impossible decision – Theo Squires

Manchester United might not be the mighty force they once were when knocking Liverpool from their perch under Sir Alex Ferguson, but that doesn’t stop Jurgen Klopp’s side’s 5-0 victory at Old Trafford back in October from being one of the highlights of the Reds ‘ season.

Even if they topple Man City to win the Premier League, emerge victorious in a Champions League final or down Chelsea at Wembley, again, in the FA Cup final on their way to clinching an unprecedented quadruple, very few results will be able to beat the feeling of such an emphatic win at the home of their most-hated rivals.

Yet as Liverpool stormed into a 4-0 half-time lead at Old Trafford last year, before adding their fifth shortly after the restart, there would have been one man of Reds persuasion who would have been well within his rights to have been watching on , bearing a feeling of frustration and disappointment.

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Sadio Mane was benched by Jurgen Klopp that day, not starting a Premier League match for the first time this season and for the first time since Liverpool’s 4-2 win at Old Trafford the previous May. Instead, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino joined Mohamed Salah in attack as the Reds ran riot, with the Senegalese only introduced in place of the Brazilian with the scoring well wrapped up with 15 minutes to go.

Sure, Salah was even more untouchable in the Liverpool starting XI than normal at the time, with his hat-trick at Old Trafford leaving him with 15 goals for the season from just 12 appearances. Yet Jota’s own strike that was his fourth of the campaign, with Firmino only matching that in the Premier League because of a hat-trick a week earlier at Watford. In contrast, Mane boasted six goals from his first 11 appearances.

Yet having seen the Portuguese break up the Reds’ once inseparable front three, it was the Senegal international deemed most at threat of a Liverpool axe. After all, he just hadn’t been at his best the previous season by his own admission and standards, with his total of 16 goals seeing him fail to break the 20-goals barrier for the first time since his first season at Anfield in 2016 /17.

Out of contract in 2023, along with Salah and Firmino, the feeling remains it is unlikely that all three will remain on the books at Anfield beyond next summer. As a result, many supporters were perhaps resigned to the possibility of Mane being the first one to make way, with the £49m signing of Luis Diaz in January only strengthening such a view – especially given his natural position on the left.

But as Liverpool prepare to lock horns with United again, the narrative has changed. If the Senegalese is benched against the Red Devils for the fourth meeting in a row between the two sides, the feeling will be rather different.

Since firing Mane to Africa Cup of Nations glory back in February, Mane has rediscovered the goalscoring form that saw him deliver so many decisive strikes in the Reds’ title-winning year of 2019/20. Coming at a time when Salah’s own strikes have dried up, certainly in comparison to his Autumn form, the 30-year-old has stepped up, out of his team-mate’s shadow, when his side need him most.

Rather than the arrival of Diaz signifying the start of a slow goodbye, it has instead granted Mane to be reinvented as Liverpool’s new central striker. Cementing his place back ahead of Jota and Firmino, it has been no mean feat, especially when you consider the Portuguese has 21 goals himself this season.

A match-winning brace in the FA Cup semi-finals against Man City on Saturday sees the Senegal international stand on 18 for the season, with four coming from his last four games, seven coming in this new central role and eight recorded since his return from AFCON duty in February. With at least 10 games remaining this season as Klopp’s men chase down a quadruple, it would be something of a shock if Mane failed to break the 20-goals barrier this year.

Having shone at Wembley, now if the forward finds himself benched against United it would be to save his legs for those bigger days to come rather than sign of a Reds changing of the guard.

Klopp admitted at his latest pre-match press conference ahead of facing United that Mane had perhaps struggled with fatigue due to his mid-season international excursions, but insisted Diaz had never been signed to replace the forward.

“I’ve known Sadio nearly six years. As far as I know him, he never needed any kind of competition to try and be the best version of himself,” the German said. “For a long time he pretty much played all the games when he was fit and performed to an incredibly high level consistently.

“Bringing in Luis, I’m not sure that it affected that part of his game. I don’t know, but it was not the reason for bringing in Luis. Playing the center obviously suits Sadio very well as well. He played for us and scored some incredible goals and some important goals from the left-wing, but he can play the center as well.

“Sadio as well had some physical struggles since he came back. The boy didn’t feel it but we could see it. He cannot use his immense physicality just like this week in, week out, every three days. That was the problem.

“But I really felt before the game against City, ‘okay that looks like Sadio physically’. And that’s why he could play the game he played. Very important, he was super difficult to defend and very helpful and incredibly important in our defending. His first goal, you can only score if you try to get there and he did that.

“No, I don’t think that Luis is the reason Sadio scored four goals. But he is a little as well because he can keep a last line pretty busy and that opens up gaps for other players.”

When ‘just’ a left-winger with Diaz through the door, there was an argument for selling Mane this summer or letting him go for free at the end of his contract. Yet now shining as a striker, he’s made a mockery of any doubts about keeping him at Anfield.

With Salah’s own future remaining uncertain, Mane’s agent has already indicated his own contract talks have not yet been held but will take place in the summer. Keep up this form and Liverpool cannot afford to let him go.

He will take a cue from the Egyptian’s own negotiations, for sure. If Salah agrees to fresh terms, his agent will be able to set his own demands accordingly. If the forward doesn’t, the stage is set for Mane to step out from the wings and be the Reds’ leading man. It’s technically what he’s already done in recent weeks, no less.

The signing of Diaz has helped to unleash Mane once more, and his performances are showing there is certainly more to being Liverpool’s central striker than Jota’s goals or Firmino’s overall game. Perhaps he is the perfect hybrid of the two for Klopp’s next-generation Reds.

And it begs the question, is there a way for FSG to keep both African forwards at Anfield? If not and one does have to move on for the other to stay on the terms they desire, the club are about to face an impossible decision.

Liverpool’s traditional front three has indeed been broken up but not at the Senegalese’s expense, with tales of his demise having been greatly exaggerated. While a desperation to keep Salah arguably created an acceptance among some fans that the Reds could not afford to keep Mane, now the feeling is one of how can they afford to even consider letting him go.

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