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Sadio Mane's desire to be Africa and the Premier League's best

He shifted left, then right before turning his body slightly, but Sadio Mane was not mortifying yet another defender with this repeated sequence. As the Liverpool forward spent just over three weeks nursing a hamstring injury sustained on Senegal duty during the October international break, his appearances at Anfield were limited to the Main Stand. His shuffling, however, did not cease.

“Honestly, it is so hard for me to watch without being able to play. I get so nervous and can’t sit still,” Mane exclusively details to Goal, demonstrating as he anxiously adjusts in his chair at Melwood.

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“I am not even in my seat sometimes, I move one way, the other way. I really shake. It’s like I’m experiencing everything that’s happening in the game without being able to do anything. It’s crazy and I can’t explain it," he adds after cracking the Goal 50 list of the world’s best footballers for a second consecutive year, earning 32nd spot and advancing seven places from 2016.

“Even now I ask myself how I can be so confident when I’m on the pitch, but if I have to just watch my team, I am filled with this worry. It is even worse if I am seeing the game at home on TV. I really don’t like not being able to help my team-mates. It is tough because I always want to do all I can and when I can’t, I don’t know what to do with myself in these 90 minutes.”

Mane means it; every word and every emotion. This is not a prosaic response about time spent on the sidelines, but an authentic picture of a player that has been swaddled by football since the age of two. His earliest memories arc around building a relationship with the ball in the rural Sedhiou village of Banbali, and everything since - the sacrifices, hiccups, suffering, successes - have only augmented that bond.

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Mane enjoys an elementary life in which the game, religion and his family are the all-important triumvirate. He is a sharp contrast to the largely gaudy environment of elite football and couldn’t be less concerned about celebrity circles, fashion or applying Instagram filters to his experiences.

But ask Liverpool’s reigning Player of the Season about the happenings in any Premier League round or the matchdays of both European tournaments and he’ll rattle off the major moments in microscopic detail. It is unsurprising given Mane’s time in front of the television is a 90-10% spilt between football programming and the odd movie in French, while the other interest he holds is in the card game UNO, where his competitiveness is unabated.

The winger’s execution of daily admin is understated too, even if an image of him clothed in a Senegalese kaftan at the local Asda buying Dove shampoo breaks the internet. “The picture was everywhere!” he shyly giggles. “But it was only me doing a normal thing.”

And that’s just it - Mane is of a precious genre; a player who not only moves people with his decisive dynamism on the pitch, but his geniality off it. When Onchan Primary school in the Isle of Man recently instructed learners to research an influential person whose resilience and mindset enabled them to achieve something great for a project, 11-year-old Charlie Salmon immediately settled on his subject matter. Having met the Reds ace once in Tegernsee ahead of the 3-0 Audi Cup victory over Bayern Munich in pre-season, the football-obsessed pupil described the interaction as “talking to my hero, but it was like he was just one of my mates.”

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The obliging Mane morphs into an ultra-merciless menace come kick off, combining his explosiveness with intelligence, which is a hellish mix for defenders to deal with. “I am different as soon as I am on the pitch, because I had to fight so much and work so hard to become a professional footballer, so I have to give everything that I can,” he explains. “When I finish games, I want to have the feeling that I helped my team as much as I could and the fans saw I was determined to win. I am like this and my attitude is always like this - you cannot be happy if you do not believe you have done your very best.”

This disposition underpins why Mane was able to return from his hamstring injury well ahead of schedule and, despite missing five fixtures, was immediately included in the starting line-up at West Ham, where Jurgen Klopp singled him out as a contender for man of the match, calling him a “machine” in the 4-1 victory following his two assists and typical relentlessness.

It also indicates why Senegal were so desperate to have him available with their World Cup qualification hanging in the balance, and the speedster duly secured their participation in next year's showpiece with a supreme performance against South Africa. 

“If I have an injury or we have disappointment with a result, the only thing in my head is about the reaction,” he says. “You cannot change what has happened, so you have you accept it but you can control what comes next and for me, the only option is to be better, stronger and with an even bigger desire for success.”

Mane finished his debut season on Merseyside with 13 goals as well as the major accolades at the club’s awards evening after his £30 million move from Southampton, but the last 12 months have not been all fantasy for the attacker.

His 2016-17 campaign ended prematurely after needing an operation to correct the meniscus damage in his left knee, which was sustained in the 3-1 Merseyside derby defeat of Everton on April 1.

The hamstring issue this term was preceded by a red card at Manchester City for a reckless high-foot hit on goalkeeper Ederson as they both challenged for a long ball, so Mane has been limited to 10 appearances for Liverpool.

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The lowest point, however, has not been his injury-enforced absences nor the sending off, but the heartbreak suffered in the colours of his national team on January 28. Senegal, with their luminary No.10, were favourites to oust Cameroon in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, but a spot in the semis had to be decided by a shootout following a goalless 120 minutes.

Mane, a standout player at the tournament in Gabon, was his country’s fifth penalty taker and despite Fabrice Ondoa diving to his right, he pulled off a fine one-handed save to thwart the centered effort. Vincent Aboubakar stepped up to blast in his kick and send the eventual winners through as the Liverpool man fell to his knees engulfed by tears.

Hunched over with his shirt pulled up to conceal his face, it took two team-mates and a member of the backroom staff to try and pick Mane up, but he dropped to the floor again. Eventually, still inconsolable, he was helped off the pitch by Senegal coach Aliou Cisse and three others.

“That was a really, really painful time for me,” Mane recounts as he closes his eyes before breathing out heavily. “It was one of the hardest moments of my career. We had such a great team, with a good team spirit and a positive, attacking way of playing.

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“We were confident we could go all the way and finally bring joy to our people. When I missed the penalty, our dream was crushed. It was devastating. I played it over and over and I felt like I could have done more, like I should have done more even before it went to penalties. It was emotionally very tough because my country is so important to me and I would have given anything to see my people happy.”

The reaction in Senegal was gravely unkind to a player integral to getting them that far in the first place. His family in Dakar were the targets of abuse and worse, with a vehicle that he had gifted his uncle badly damaged.

“All the bad things and the hurt I was feeling, I took it all and used it to push me. I made it a positive,” Mane says, with the proof coming with two goals against Tottenham, followed by strikes against Arsenal and Everton before sustaining the knee injury that curtailed his campaign. “I had to stay strong mentally and only focus on working harder. There is no point keeping the pain because it can ruin you, you have to turn it into something helpful.”

Liverpool arranged a private jet to bring Mane back from Gabon in time for the Premier League showdown against Chelsea on January 31 and had also hired Dave Galley, who was their head physio between 1999 and 2005, to monitor his fitness in co-ordination with the Senegalese Football Federation during the showpiece.

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That further underlined how valued he is by the club, who have made that clear since the transfer from Southampton was completed in the summer of 2016. They created a prayer room at Melwood for Mane as well as helped him hire a personal chef - the extra support he has received from the Reds was pivotal to how swiftly he settled.

“From the first day, they have shown me that we are a family,” he says. “If you want to be successful when you play, you have to be free in your mind and that happens if you know that everything is taken care of - you just focus on the football. I have a good relationship with everyone off the pitch and you can see that it follows on the pitch too. It makes things easier and, if we are all together, we get stronger as individuals too. The support from the fans is also important, when you feel loved and like they are really behind you, it’s like you can achieve anything.”

Last season, Mane’s dovetailing with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho produced “perfect football,” according to Klopp, and the addition of summer signing Mohamed Salah has given the game-changer another talent to feed off.

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“Mo is a great lad and an incredible player,” he says. “It is good that he has settled in so easily and there is so much more still to come from him. We get on well and I enjoy playing with him, but that’s the same with everyone. We have a very exciting team and we all want to help the club be successful.”

Salah’s recruitment has seen Mane switch from the right of the front three to the left, with zero affect to his efficacy. “It doesn’t matter to me which position I have to be in because I have played in all the attacking roles - right, left, as the No.10, second striker and No. 9,” he points out. “My job is the same wherever I am on the pitch - I have to always be an option, to be aggressive and direct, to be a defender too and to help us play quicker.”

Mane’s stellar first season at Anfield has steered the player onto the 30-man Ballon d’Or nominees list as well as being one of the main contenders for the CAF African Footballer of the Year.

“It’s a nice sign that I am going in the right direction,” he says, before adding “I am happy and honoured to be nominated, but I am not satisfied. It can only be the start.”

It is the latter award, well within reach, that Mane covets. Having finished third last year behind winner Riyad Mahrez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his authoritative performances since then for club and country make him a strong candidate for top spot.

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“It would fill my heart to be African Footballer of the Year,” Mane admits. “For the journey I have made, where I started from to everything I had to give up, it would be so special to me.”

Mane has been a revelation at Liverpool, but it has been no surprise or accident. “When I was young, I would tell everyone that I am going to be a big player for a big club and they would laugh at me,” he remembers. “It wasn’t because they didn’t think I was talented, but it seemed impossible to go from Sedhiou to the top. 

"But I always knew I had it in me and that whatever it took, I was going to make it happen.

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“I was never in doubt and my confidence keeps growing because I work very hard to be prepared. With every game and every season, the plan is to do more than the last one and I know there is a lot still in me.

"I am at a fantastic club, where the coaching staff and my team-mates have helped me reach the next level and I want to keep improving. What I need to do is very clear in my head.”

Defences domestically and on the continent should be concerned that Mane is aware of the full extent of his powers. Having announced himself with a top-corner cracker after toying with Nacho Monreal and Callum Chambers in the 4-3 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates last season, it was against the Gunners at Anfield this August where his swelling conviction was most apparent.

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In Liverpool’s 4-0 obliteration of their opponents, Emre Can released Roberto Firmino from a counter-attack and the Brazil international turned, spraying a pass into Mane’s path. Before receiving possession and despite having plenty to do, the overlay of self-assurance on the jet-heeled forward’s face suggested he knew he’d be putting Liverpool 2-0 to the good.

Mane stood up Rob Holding, before skipping inside him and leaving Petr Cech helpless to a curling bullet beyond the goalkeeper and into the far corner.

“I try to make the best decision always. I think about what the defender will do, but most important is what I want to do and how to make that happen,” he states.

“So in my head, I’m a few steps ahead. Once I have the plan, I focus on carrying it out and it’s hard to stop me. I’m only looking upwards.”

The fusion of Mane’s agile mind and turbo feet is sure to continue to unsettle markers and fuel his ambitions. He will not allow it to be any other way.