London: Sadio Mane has, in the words of Liverpool teammate Andy Robertson, “taken his game to another level”, stepping out of Mohammad Salah’s shadow to become arguably the main man at Anfield.
The Senegal international shares star billing with Salah and Roberto Firmino as part of the European champions’ electrifying and fluid front three.
But this year Mane is leading Liverpool’s charge — his goal at Selhurst Park at the weekend was his 12th of the campaign and his 29th for the club in the calendar year.
Mane frightens defences with his pace, direct running and skill and his goal return has eased the burden on the shoulders of Salah.
Liverpool defender Robertson praised Mane after his goal in the 2-1 victory against Crystal Palace, who kept Liverpool eight points clear of second-placed Leicester in the Premier League.
On Wednesday he will train his sights on Napoli in the Champions League, with a win guaranteeing Liverpool top spot in the group.
“He has been fantastic,” said Robertson. “Even when I came he was amazing but maybe did not have as much composure as he does now in front of goal.
“Now, every time he’s in front of goal you don’t think he’ll miss. The one he had at the start of the second half [of the Palace game], we were surprised he didn’t score and that is the type of player he is. You expect him to score and that is a good thing and he’s popped up with another crucial goal.”
“The others are pitching in as well but it’s been a fantastic year for him and he’s taken his game to another level,” Robertson added.
Mane joined Liverpool in 2016, a year before Salah, but the Egyptian quickly became the alpha male at Anfield, scoring 44 goals in all competitions in a remarkable debut season in 2017/18.
Last season the two players shared the Premier League Golden Boot with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with the three forwards all scoring 22 goals.
And Salah has pipped his teammate to the African player of the year award over the past two seasons.
Both have been shortlisted again for this year’s prize and Mane, who reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal this year, is seen as an outsider to win the Ballon d’Or.
Mane has talked about how lucky he is to play alongside his two attacking comrades-in-arms.
“Every single player who plays alongside them would enjoy it because they are very good players and they make everything easy, so I just enjoy playing alongside them,” he told the official Liverpool magazine.
Despite those warm words, there was a rare display of emotion from the 27-year-old earlier this season when he was substituted at Burnley, furious that Salah had not passed to him when he was in a better position.
It led to suggestions that all was not harmonious between the pair, but Mane was quick to correct any impression of an underlying problem.
“It can happen, he didn’t see me and I was frustrated. We are really good friends,” he said.
A 176-second hat-trick for Southampton in 2015 catapulted Mane to worldwide attention.
He joined Liverpool the following year for £34 million ($44 million) and was voted the club’s player of the year in his debut season.
Last year the Senegalese signed a new deal committing him to the club until 2023.
At the time Klopp called him the “complete” attacking player and said he had improved season by season.
“The only criticism I could ever have of Sadio is that maybe at times he is the only one not to see just how good he is,” said the Liverpool boss.
The question harassed defenders will be asking themselves is just how good he will be when he starts fully believing in himself.
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