LIVERPOOL: Sadio Mane has grown used to playing second fiddle to Mohamed Salah in the two seasons since the latter joined the Senegalese at Liverpool.
However, the fact Jurgen Klopp’s men top the Premier League in their quest to end a 29-year wait to win the title and face Porto in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final at Anfield on Tuesday, is largely thanks to Mane.
As Salah’s goals dried up in an eight-game drought prior to Friday’s 3-1 win at Southampton, Mane assumed the mantle as chief goal getter with 11 in his last 13 Liverpool appearances taking his tally for the season to 20.
That run included a double away to Bayern Munich last month that eased the five-time European champions past the German giants and eyeing another shot at Champions League glory.
His first goal in particular at the Allianz Arena was a demonstration in the 26-year-old’s pace, skill and calmness in front of goal.
Mane controlled a raking long pass from Virgil van Dijk, rounded Manuel Neuer and then dinked the ball into an unguarded net.
“I’m going to have to watch back 500 times,” admitted Klopp after the game. “It’s astounding what he did.”
Mane scored 10 Champions League goals in all last season, including in the final.
However, his brave header in Kiev to bring Liverpool briefly level was quickly forgotten amid the furore over Salah’s early shoulder injury that saw him hobble off and aided Real Madrid’s route to a third straight European title.
While Salah now carries himself with a swagger from the star status he has earned over the past two years, Mane’s humble nature means he often remains under the radar for a player of his quality.
In September he was filmed helping to clean the toilets at his local mosque just hours after scoring in a vital away win at Leicester.
Last week in an internal interview with Liverpool’s club media, he detailed a daily routine that consists of healthy eating, prayer and early nights.
“That’s how a normal day for me looks. This is my dream, this is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I am so grateful that I am able to do it now,” he said.
“My dream came true, to play for one of the biggest clubs in Europe with a great team, a great manager.”
Porto are already very aware of the threat Mane poses.
When the sides met in the last of the Champions League last season, he scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 first leg rout in northern Portugal that killed the tie as a contest even before it even returned to fortress Anfield.
This time round, Liverpool will be keen to get the job done in the first leg on home soil.
Klopp’s men have not made life easy for themselves in recent weeks on league duty, requiring late goals to see off Fulham, Tottenham and Southampton to keep their title dreams alive.
However, just by keeping pace with quadruple chasing Manchester City all season, they have shown a maturity and mental strength that has evolved from the kamikaze matches that carried them to last season’s final.
“The boys are mentality monsters - I love that,” said Klopp after victory at Southampton.
Moreover, unlike when Sergio Ramos’s takedown of Salah seemed to suck belief from Liverpool against Madrid almost a year ago, they now have a cast of characters capable of stepping up.
Goalkeeper Alisson Becker and talismanic centre-back Van Dijk have strengthened the defence.
And, at the other end, Mane has shown he can be counted on at the business end of the season.--AFP