Neil Humphreys: Mane main man in title charge
Senegalese star earns goal, assist in nervy win as Reds go back on top of EPL
If the Reds are to achieve the unthinkable and win the English Premier League title, then Sadio Mane may prove to be the right man in the right place at the right time.
He certainly was against Fulham last night. He scored the opening goal and won the penalty that James Milner put away in a jittery 2-1 victory.
Mane is making a habit of rescuing the flailing Reds. He’s addicted to scoring, displaying a tenacity in the box that seems to be eluding his teammates.
He’s on top of the world and the Reds are top of the table as a result. How long they stay there will depend on the form of both Manchester City and Mane.
Champions usually require a footballer to find unrivalled form in the decisive run-in to prevail and the Senegalese forward oozes confidence right now.
His opener was rather symbolic as he drew level with Mohamed Salah in the race for the EPL Golden Boot. The likely lads from Liverpool are both on 17 goals and it’s hard not to see anything other than a baton being passed.
Salah continues to lead the line commendably enough, along with Roberto Firmino, but neither forward terrifies centre-backs as much as Mane now.
When Mane collected Andy Robertson’s ball out wide, his reflexes took him inside, his instincts were to drive past his marker and keep going, anticipating the return pass. Moments later, Salah collected a similar pass on the other side and fell at the first defender.
The comparison may be simplistic, but the imagery was unmistakable. From Juergen Klopp to the kit man, if every member of Liverpool staff had to pick one player to put away a chance, on current form, they’d pick their shiny star from Senegal. Sane illuminated an otherwise grey Liverpool performance.
Klopp said he was in the company of royalty in midweek, but there was nothing particularly regal about Liverpool’s win. After the incomparable high of the Allianz Arena, the humdrum reality of gravity was a bit of a bump.
Caretaker coach Scott Parker has already rebuilt Fulham in his own image as a once swashbuckling midfielder: compact, organised and tidy.
But that’s all they were.
Their attacking threat was negligible. Hopeful balls lumped towards Aleksandar Mitrovic were less taxing than a morning stroll for Liverpool’s centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip.
Their irrepressible fullbacks Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold spent more time in their opponents’ half than their own, pinging cross-field passes for fun. It was a race to see which fullback carved out the inevitable opening and Robertson won in the 26th minute.
He found Mane, who swept past his marker, slipped an impudent, angled pass to Firmino, collected the ball and smashed in his fifth goal in three games (or 11 in 11).
And then came the stuff of nightmares.
Liverpool should’ve run away with the victory, but they ran away from their senses instead.
In the 74th minute, a catastrophic series of errors gifted Liverpool an unlikely equaliser.
First, substitute Milner hoofed a clearance towards his own goalkeeper. Van Dijk headed the ball towards Alisson, but only feebly pushed the ball straight into Ryan Babel’s path.
The Liverpool old boy tapped into an empty net and almost apologised to his former club with his subdued celebrations.
But Mane went down in the box in the 81st minute, giving Milner a chance to make amends for his earlier error from the spot.
It was unpredictable, frenzied and undeniably scruffy, but the Reds held on.
Mane had made the difference, as he always does.