There are not many regrets that a serial winner such as Jurgen Klopp will have in their career. But the German swears that passing up the opportunity to sign Sadio Mane is one he cannot forgive himself for.
Having tracked Mane’s progress from his days at Red Bull Salzburg and then catching the eye at the 2012 Olympics with Senegal, Klopp personally held talks about a transfer to Borussia Dortmund, who he managed at the time.
“I made a mistake,” Klopp said. “We met each other, we talked but by the end I didn’t feel it. I like the player, it was more of a feeling.
“His baseball cap was askew, the blond streak he still has today. He looked like a rapper just starting out. I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this’.
“I’d say I have a pretty good feeling for people, but was I wrong!
“About three months later I would have punched myself, so I already knew that the next chance I have, I would take it.”
It was a statement signing from the Reds, beating Manchester United and Tottenham to his signature. Officially, it also secured Mane’s status as the most expensive African player of all-time. No pressure.
Klopp will freely admit he wasn’t his first choice, as was the case when he was at Dortmund, after trying to sign Mario Gotze from Bayern Munich.
But he was left intrigued by a player who had developed a knack of scoring the odd goal against them.
He netted in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool and was later sent off, and was the only Saints player to impress in the 6-1 demolition handed to his side by the Reds some months later.
His record of 21 goals in 67 games in the Premier League was respectable in a team that were competing for Europe. But there was a common feeling his ceiling could be as high as a cathedral, given he was only 24 at the time.
Some players struggle under the expectation of the Anfield faithful, but the Kop had quickly fallen head over heels in love with this fascinating player.
He was blessed with tremendous pace and agility, but also a clinical touch in front of goal. Liverpool had never really had such an explosive player in their frontline, but with 13 league goals in his debut campaign, they were glad to have made the investment.
Pool via REUTERS)
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And so, they repeated the trick. The Reds splashed out £38m to bring in Mohamed Salah from Roma after the Egyptian had lit up Serie A during his two seasons in Italy.
With Roberto Firmino already at the club and Mane on the left, Klopp’s dream attacking triumvirate was complete. For the next two years, the trio enjoyed wreaking havoc on the defenders that dared to try and stop them scoring.
In 2017-18, Salah enjoyed an incredible debut campaign in the Premier League with 32 goals, Firmino struck 15 and Mane, disappointingly maybe, only got 10.
Klopp had transformed the Merseyside club into a force again, not just in the Premier League as they finished second, but in Europe too, reaching the Champions League final only to lose out to Real Madrid.
The next year, they would win it against Tottenham. The following year after that came their first Premier League triumph in 30 years with an incredible 99 points.
To say Mane played his part with 48 goals across those two campaigns would seriously undermine his overall impact. He was sensational and that is recognised by the fact Lionel Messi picked him for the Ballon d’Or in 2019.
Football is a funny game, though; players can get kicked constantly and get on with it as if it never happened. But fail to pass it to a team-mate and it can cause the egotistical characters to throw their proverbial toys out of the pram.
One only has to look to Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud’s recent falling out over a similar incident. It nearly wrecked the harmony in France’s Euro 2020 squad, albeit it wouldn’t have been the first time.
Similarly, tensions came to a head when Mane reacted angrily to Salah’s refusal to pass to him when he was in a good position to score. At the time, Liverpool were 3-0 up against Burnley.
Action Images via Reuters)
It hardly felt like the right time to cause a stir, but Salah opted to shoot instead and Mane was furious after being hooked by Klopp. He could be seen bellowing towards the German and captain Jordan Henderson after being substituted.
It is perfectly natural for two team-mates vying to be their team’s top goalscorer to be competitive. But this felt more like a rivalry brewing. It only added fuel to the fire when they shared the Golden Boot in 2018-19 with 22 goals apiece.
The most important thing for Liverpool is that the pair share a mutual respect for each other — even if Mane admits there can be “disagreements”.
“We have sometimes had our disagreements, but it remains a great pleasure to play beside him because I have the feeling we speak the same type of football,” he told France Football in 2019.
Now 29 and midway through the peak years of his career, Mane has experienced his toughest season. Just 16 goals in all competitions — his lowest total since his first season at Anfield — suggests that his powers may be declining, while Salah remains very much the man man.
“If you ask me what is wrong I will struggle to give you an answer,” he told Canal+ in May.
“Personally I don’t know. I have always tried to be positive, whether things are going well or badly. I question myself all the time.
“I even underwent a test to take a look at my body. Am I eating the right foods, or has everything changed? But they checked the test results, and everything is fine.”
Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
It is typical of a footballer who strives for greatness to search for answers when things are not going right. Sometimes, it is a matter of fortune and effort. Mane never can be accused of lacking the latter, so the former should come back to him soon enough.
Eventually, he will be forced to accept the concept that nothing lasts forever and age will eventually catch up with his body — perhaps denying him a dream move to Real Madrid.
But that seems a long way off for a player as gifted and driven as Mane, who will be hoping his next five years at Liverpool are just as successful as the first.
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