In the bowels of Anfield Stadium, Sadio Mane was confirmed as Liverpool players’ Player of the Season and fans’ Player of the Season for 2016-17. On the pitch, he had made a telling contribution to the Reds in Jurgen Klopp’s first season, evidenced by the deserved accolades he picked up at the Liverpool awards evening, but also by an impressive number of goal contributions – 15 goals and 9 assists.
Though he reached new levels that season, a tally like that had been waiting for the Senegalese from the beginning of his career. Mane arrived at his first club Metz with typical determination that has become a defining attribute of his playing style, making his way from Senegal to France on his own, only notifying his family of the move once he’d arrived.
His only season for the club ended in a disappointing relegation, but this couldn’t have been less indicative of the progress Mane would make later on. He had picked up his own suitors in Austrian club RB Salzburg and would go on to impress there, forging out his path as a barnstorming winger.
He scored three hat-tricks for Die Roten Bullen and ended the 2013-14 season with a domestic double. That was more like it. But determined as ever, Mane was aiming for better and a place in the Premier League beckoned. The test of his true talent had arrived.
Over two seasons with Southampton, Mane did no disservice to himself whatsoever, and a growing reputation continued on its upward trajectory, helped by the attention that surrounded him after his completion of the fastest Premier League hat-trick ever – two minutes and 56 seconds.
In some ways, it is completely appropriate that such an award would go to a player for whom pace is both a killer weapon and a recognisable trademark, but in other ways it masks the truth that he is far more than a ‘one trick pony’, which is an overused and ill-informed narrative used to deny the brilliant winger his hard-earned recognition.
The spotlight is on him now though, cast by none other than Real Madrid, the team against whom he netted in Liverpool’s disastrous Champions League final. Transfer windows lend themselves perfectly to sensationalism and tempting rumour, and the purported deal involving the Senegalese is a corker of a story, but neither Jurgen Klopp nor his staff would consider accepting any offers - no matter how genuine they are.
Despite breaching the fabled 20 goal mark, Mane has been criticised for diminished performance this season. Of course, it would be hard not to overlook this contribution when Liverpool’s other winger has had a legendary season at Anfield, but without Mane, Mohamed Salah would not be the same. Without Mane, Liverpool are not the same.
A part of the dynamic and devastating Reds triumvirate, he is the equal of both Roberto Firmino and Salah. He has been the trailblazer of Klopp's 'heavy metal football', setting the standards with a direct run and curling finish at pace on his debut against Arsenal.
With the introduction of Liverpool's Egyptian King, Mane is no longer considered the main man, but is a threat in a new sense. The opposition can't neglect either of the two wingers, and the Senegalese can provide Salah with more space to score his goals, while also crafting out a handy number of chances for himself.
Mane's performance in the first half of the season disappointed some, but he hit back at the critics in the Reds' triumphant 5-0 away drubbing of Porto. A hat-trick (his first for Liverpool), finished off with a thunderous drive in the later stages of the game, confirmed his undeniable talent and allowed him to flourish in the rest of the memorable Champions League campaign.
Of course, a move away does not look likely anymore, but Liverpool must keep Sadio Mane on Merseyside. His ability is known by fans of all clubs, and the Reds must keep this fear factor in their attack. He is a crucial part of the push for silverware, and is fast becoming irreplaceable at Anfield.