Liverpool’s attempts to win the Premier League have hit some speedbumps of late, but one superstar Muslim forward is carrying them through and has fired them back into form. And no, it’s not Mohamed Salah.

Sadio Mané wears the best shirt in football (the no. 10) but is often the least lauded member of their famous front trio. Ah who are we kidding, he’s always the least lauded member of their famous front trio. Everyone was falling over themselves to heap praise on Mohamed Salah last season (rightly so) whilst Bobby Firmino is the Thinking Man’s Liverpool’ Attack of Choice.

Mané, meanwhile? He’s thought of as just a dude. A hard-working runner. No one calls him a genius or world-class or the key man. And that’s a shame because Sadio Mané is something of a genius, and he is borderline world-class (just like Firmino) and, especially of late, he has been Liverpool FC’s key man in attack.

Liverpool’s form since the new year has been fairly ropey. They began 2019 by losing back-to-back games and until last night had failed to regain the imperious form that saw them sweep December aside like that evil Santa from Futurama. Eight games, eight wins, 23 goals scored, just 3 conceded – they looked unstoppable. Then City beat them in a titanic clash, then Wolves slapped them up… and, yeah.

They eeked out a win over Brighton then won a helter-skelter tie against Crystal Palace – and here’s where Mané began to dominate. He bagged Liverpool’s fourth in this game, a goal which turned out to be the match-winner. So he secured Liverpool three huge points.

After 10 days off, the Reds returned to face Leicester and despite a shockingly icy pitch, Mané showed brilliant balance to skate into the area and slap the ball into the corner of the net. A crucial early lead that Liverpool would conspire to throw away, but without Mané’s goal it could have been so much worse.

Guess what happened a few days later? Pretty much the same thing. Mané’s instincts saw him make a superb near-post run to collect a James Milner cross. Mané turned on a dime leaving poor Issa Diop looking exhausted like a parent in a shopping centre, loaded up with shopping bags, seeing their hyperactive child run into the Disney store. The finish after that was simple and Liverpool again had an early lead and again they threw it away to draw 1-1.

You see what happened there? Liverpool were going through a down period of immense struggle and with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino basically doing nothing, Mané twice stepped up to give his side a huge advantage only for his team-mates to fail to press it home. These draws let Manchester City back into the title race, in fact just a couple of days after the debacle in London, City retook top spot.

A few days later, when Bournemouth came to Anfield with ambitions of upsetting the Reds, it was once again Mané who stepped up with his fourth goal in four games. And again he gave Liverpool the lead. Except this time his team-mates actually hammered the advantage home! Excellent goals from Georginio Wijnaldum and Salah (assisted by Firmino – finally they woke up!) completed a big win.

The Reds followed this with two frustrating 0-0 draws, the first against Bayern Munich in the Champions League where even Mané’s dead-eyed accuracy abandoned him, and the second against Manchester United where, not for the first time Mané was Liverpool’s best forward whilst Salah and Firmino were poor.

Then yesterday, midweek at home to Watford. Liverpool know that they now have just a one point lead over Manchester City and even a draw would essentially be a defeat. With the pressure on, who do you think stepped up for the Reds?

Sadio Mané, of course!

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Mané rose to confidently head in a great cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold just nine minutes into the game and then, not trusting his team-mates to get it done, doubled Liverpool’s lead himself with a mind-bendingly outrageous backheel goal. It wasn’t the first time Mané had used a backheel for great effect, in fact he loves a good backheel does Sadio.

Anyway, at 2-0 Liverpool were safe but Divock Origi and Virgil van Dijk (the only other Liverpool player who has been as consistently good as Mané in 2019) made it 5-0. A thumping victory that went some way to establishing Liverpool as a confident and present force, not a fading side hanging onto their league lead with a sense of grim fatalism that it will all go wrong.

Sadio Mané has almost entirely by himself carried Liverpool through their rough patch. Without him the Reds would have surely lost to Leicester and West Ham, and they may not have beaten Bournemouth or even Watford. They would have faltered in their title challenge before March had even begun. Instead they’ve ridden through a rough patch and thanks to Mané’s goals come out of it lead intact.

The Senegalese has scored six goals in 2019, no Liverpool player can match that. He’s done this taking 20 shots, which is more than Firmino’s 12 but less than Salah’s 24. However Mané shot conversion is miles better than theirs. Both his strike partners convert their shots into goals 16.67% of the time whilst in 2019 Mané is running on a 30% conversion rate.

Mané’s created less chances and taken less dribbles than them too, but this just illustrates why a player like him is so important. He wears the 10 but Mané doesn’t demand the ball so he can dribble with it, he doesn’t insist on being the playmaker. He knows he’s at his best when he moves the ball around simply and then shows up to shoot.

Perhaps that’s why he’s so capable of performing when the pressure is on. He keeps his game streamlined and focused on only the essentials. This could be why he was, by a distance, Liverpool’s best attacker in their Champions League final defeat (even before Salah’s injury). He knew what he had to do inside out, and Madrid couldn’t key in on him to slow him down.

Six goals in Mané’s last seven games is impressive, but if you look when those goals were scored and the manner in which they came, a game-winner and then opening strikes to give a struggling side the lead, all you can do is applaud him. He is not a dude, he is a man. A handsome, talented man (humble too – here he is cleaning toilets in his local Mosque). One just has to step back a bit to truly appreciate the degree to which Sadio Mané has dragged Liverpool kicking and screaming back to the top of the table. A true Merseyside hero.

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