The flag went up. The whistle sounded. The goal was ruled out.
Every Liverpool player accepted the decision. So did the few thousand Reds in the upper corner of the Estadio Dragao. Sadio Mane was so far beyond the last home defender when he tapped the ball into the net that he simply must have been offside.
Suddenly, the camera panned to referee Danny Makkelie, finger to his ear. “It’s a goal.”
As the Dutchman muttered those words, Liverpool were ahead.
The replays proved Sadio Mane was in fact, inexplicably, onside. The Senegalese’s sheer speed in catching Mohamed Salah’s cross/shot from the right side of the last defender may have seemed impossible, but he made it happen.
The goal was crucial in settling Liverpool’s nerves after a ropey opening period, killing Portuguese hopes and the contest in one-fell-swoop.
It made the hour which followed little more than a procession. With the pressure off, the Reds marched through the Porto defence time-and-time-again, racking up four goals and an aggregate victory which, at this stage of top-tier intercontinental competition, should be simply implausible.
But this Liverpool side so often makes the extremely difficult look oh so simple
Whether it is coming from behind in a tough league fixture, beating a top-six rival comprehensively in a match pivotal for the title race, or going away in Europe and dominating the opposition, the current Reds are ticking all of the boxes.
Every player has had a significant influence on that recent success. The re-emergence of Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita has been crucial. Mohamed Salah’s return to his rip-roaring best has been timed perfectly. And the consistent excellence of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson has provided the most solid of platforms from which to play.
But nobody has done more since the turn of the year than Sadio Mane.
From January 1 onwards, Mane has notched 13 goals in all competitions, more than any other Liverpool player. But more importantly, his goals have often come at hugely important moments in the club’s campaign.
His strikes have included the openers in vital matches, away at Bayern Munich, Fulham, and Porto, and at home to Chelsea. Liverpool’s number 10 is scoring the goals which matter the most, which have put them top of the league with four to go and into a Champions League semi-final, and which might well make all our dreams come true.
Against Porto, as well as securing the opening goal, Mane made six tackles, three more than any other player on the pitch. His technical qualities and goalscoring are what one would expect from a world-class forward. But his contemporaries, the likes of Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale, and Neymar, aren’t making six tackles in a match. They aren’t winning the ball back inside their own half to help their teammates build an attack. They’re doing the spectacular things, but they aren’t doing the graft.
Sadio Mane is.
His combination of technique, athleticism, and sheer desire to win football matches is at the moment elevating him beyond most other forwards in the world.
His form since the start of the year has arguably been the most impressive of any footballer on the planet. Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling may have something to say about that, but Mane is most certainly staking his own claim in that conversation.
Sadio to score & Liverpool to win 2-0, 2-1 OR 3-1 (vs Cardiff) – 21/4!*
If Liverpool are to achieve the unthinkable, the league and European Cup double which match-by-match becomes eminently more realistic, then Sadio Mane will be at the very heart of that success.
Make no mistake. Cardiff City away this Sunday is the biggest match of all our lives. The lives of every supporter. The lives of every Liverpool player. The life of Sadio Mane.
It does not get more important than this.
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