Against Arsenal in August 2016, and against the same club a year later, Mane found the net to cap off irresistible attacking displays as the Reds shredded one of their title rivals.
However, last term, like this, Mane’s progress has been cut off at the knees.
During the 2016-17 campaign, after adapting seamlessly to life at a higher level after swapping Southampton for Anfield, he travelled to Gabon for the Africa Cup of Nations, and the Reds’ decline in his absence ended any title talk.
Towards the end of the campaign he suffered an injury, and again, the Reds’ attack was muted in his absence.
This season, already, Liverpool have both benefited from the Senegal international’s brilliance, and experienced just how blunted they are in his absence.
After starting the season strongly, he missed three domestic games after being sent off against Manchester City, and no sooner has he returned, then he’s sidelined again. This time, with a hamstring injury that threatens to keep him out for six weeks.
As well as missing Senegal’s World Cup double-header against South Africa, he’s also set to sit out several key Reds fixtures—notably the derby against Manchester United on Saturday.
“Thank God that we can play football without Sadio because already we had to do this a lot of times, much more often than we wanted,” Jurgen Klopp told journalists in his pre-match press conference.
“He’s a high quality player, we all know this. He was unlucky with the injury but it is like it is,” the German added. “A lot of players in this international break have injuries – it’s a big problem, change of rhythm, change of training, stuff like this.
“It’s not only Sadio it’s [Marouane] Fellaini, it’s a lot of other players,” Klopp concluded. “We can play without him even if we would love to have him in the line-up. That’s how it is.”
Yet the evidence of the Reds’ form without Mane raises doubts about whether—as Klopp suggests—they can thrive without him.
Certainly, it’s hard to see how the Merseysiders can boast their same venom going forward without arguably their key man, the reigning Liverpool Player of the Year and one of only two African players on the Ballon d’Or shortlist.
Former Liverpool striker Craig Bellamy, speaking on Sky Sports’ The Debate, is just one pundit who believes that the Anfield giants are a different prospect entirely without Mane.
“In those areas of high intensity, Mane is a big difference,” the former Welsh international said. “When Liverpool don’t hit those big numbers, it’s when he’s not playing.”
The evidence backs up Bellamy rather than Klopp.
Without Mane at the start of 2017, they won just once—against League Two Plymouth Argyle—in seven matches, and were eliminated from both the League Cup and the FA Cup.
In the three games before the City fixture in which Mane was dismissed, Liverpool scored eight, but managed just four in the three games in which he was absent, managing just 18 shots on target out of 79, according to the Independent.
Similarly, while the Reds have averaged 2.1 points per game with Mane in the team since the start of last season, that drops to 1.7 points per game without him. Their goals per game also drops from 2.2 to 1.6.
However, the one major difference in Liverpool’s attack between last season and this is the presence of Mohamed Salah, and his form at least offers hope that the Reds can help to combat the loss of the West African.
The former Chelsea man has hit the ground running after returning to the Premier League, scoring four and contributing one assist in the top flight, and also finding the net against Sevilla in the Champions League.
His speed, intelligence, work rate and intensity make him an ideal fit for Klopp’s approach, while his opportunism also compensates for the fact that he perhaps lacks the finishing finesse of Mane.
Salah should return to Liverpool buoyed after his star turn in African World Cup qualifying, when he scored twice—including a last-minute penalty—to fire Egypt to the global showpiece for the first time since 1990.
That second strike prompted nationwide celebrations, and underpinned Salah’s status as the figurehead of the Pharaohs’ post-Golden Generation side and one of the finest attackers on the continent.
It also reaffirmed the fact that he’s a player for the big occasion, and will relish the prospect of hosting Manchester United on Saturday.
However, rest assured that whichever approach Klopp opts for, Salah will play a key role as Liverpool aim to bounce back from their latest setback.
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