The Goal 50 2018 is in the books, with three African superstars taking their place among the world’s greatest players.
Few could argue against the inclusion of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly, all of whom have seen their stock rise during 2018.
However, which of the three will be ranked as the continent’s top star in twelve months’ time, or will one of the players overlooked for the 2018 enjoy a year to remember and leapfrog the aforementioned trio?
In this feature, two Goal writers look ahead to 2019 and reveal which African star they will headline the continent’s nominees for next year’s Goal 50.
While many African players will be hoping of sneaking into the Goal 50 2019, it’s hard to see any topping Salah, assuming the Liverpool superstar doesn’t suffer serious injury or a chronic lack of form.
His third-placed ranking in this year’s list makes him the highest placed African ever to make the list.
For context, only Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Riyad Mahrez and Yaya Toure have previously made the Top 10, and one would possibly have to go back to the mid-90s—and George Weah—to find an African footballer enjoying a year as successful as Salah’s last term.
The question perhaps ought not be whether Salah could be surpassed by any African player in 2019, but whether he can climb even higher in our ranking of the world’s top stars.
Now in mid-November, Liverpool are still firmly in the title race—unbeaten and only two points off Manchester City—and there’s a sense they still have another gear or two to find.
Indeed, there’s still surely more to come from the remaining members of the Fab Four—Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino—while Naby Keita and Fabinho are yet to truly show what they’re capable of in England.
If Salah can spearhead a title challenge, even if Liverpool fall short, it would represent a fine campaign and measure of consistency for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
In the Champions League, he already has two goals in four group-stage games, and Liverpool will again be targeting a long run in the competition after going so far this season.
Internationally, as well, Salah is approaching a massive year.
He was influential as Egypt ended their 28-year wait to reach the World Cup and then played a key role as they secured Africa Cup of Nations qualification, having been part of the side that were defeated finalists in 2017.
Despite the turmoil of the last 12 months, Salah has turned out several outstanding performances for the Pharaohs since his troubled World Cup.
More of the same—and potentially the African title in Cameroon—and none of the continent’s stars will be able to rival Salah.
Salah enjoyed a stellar 2018, and rightly finished prominently in the Goal 50.
For a year in which he scored at an unprecedented rate, and in which led Liverpool to the Champions League final, he can hardly be begrudged his spot among the world’s greats.
And yet, there are reasons to suggest that, by the time next year’s awards are handed out, it will be teammate Mane who ends 2019 as the highest placed African.
First of all, there is the issue of regression. Already, there is some degree of slowing down to Salah’s goalscoring, as most of the analytics community predicted.
That regression to the mean does not preclude his status as a devastating forward. What it does do, however, is it opens the door for Mane.
The Senegal international was no slouch himself, and when Liverpool hit their high notes on
Champions League nights, he had as much to say about it as anyone else: he scored 10 in 11, a better rate than Salah’s 10 in 13, and he carried the flagging Reds in that losing effort in the final.
He has begun the season with six goals already, and still looks to have quite a few gears more to hit.
If anything, the numbers suggest that he is slightly unfortunate not to have finished higher than he did this year.
Of his competitors, none can boast his consistency of performance: Naby Keita has struggled with injury, Salah might struggle to escape the attentions of opposing defenders now he’s being played more centrally, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hasn’t to be involved in his favoured position under new management at Arsenal.
Today, Mane is arguably right now the hardest player in the Liverpool front line to directly replace.
One can expect that value to manifest more prominently as Jurgen Klopp’s side competes on multiple fronts, but will it be enough for him to replace Salah in Africa’s top spot in the Goal 50?