'More focused, more clinical' - How Sadio Mane became Liverpool's main man

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In an exclusive interview with Goal, Salif Diao discusses how a newfound clinical streak has transformed his fellow Senegalese into the Reds' talisman

Sadio Mane’s hot streak continues.

The settings were different, the pitch much less pristine. The shirt was white instead of red and the stakes not quite so high.

Same old Sadio, though, as Liverpool’s talisman replicated his club form on the international stage this week.

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Mane only played 14 minutes as Senegal defeated Mali in a friendly in Dakar on Tuesday night, but he was to make quite an impact. He would equalise with a brilliant solo goal three minutes from time, and then set up fellow substitute Moussa Konate for the winner in stoppage time. The Mane man, indeed.

That’s how it is for the 26-year-old right now: everything he touches seems to turn to goals.

For Liverpool, he has 11 in his last 11 outings, and 20 for the campaign. He has already matched his total for the whole of last season, and is within one of Sergio Aguero in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot. You’d have got 20/1 on Mane winning that award at the start of the season.

His development at Anfield has been good enough to prompt transfer talk over in Spain. Real Madrid, with Zinedine Zidane back in the hotseat, are said to be interested. Liverpool, Goal understands, would not even consider a sale. Mane’s new Reds contract, signed in January, contains no release clause.

Still, the fact that he is being mentioned in such terms speaks of his improvement as a player. Jurgen Klopp, his manager, says Mane has finally, belatedly, realised he is “a world-class player” and the world, it seems, is following suit. If Liverpool did want to sell this summer, they could command a remarkable fee.

For Salif Diao, the rise of his countryman has been one to savour, his success an inspiration to all.

“Everyone,” he tells Goal, “wants to be Sadio Mane in Senegal – and why wouldn’t they?”

Diao says he is using Mane’s success, and his hero status back home, to help inspire and encourage the next generation of Senegalese youngsters. His foundation, Sport 4 Life, aims to promote the values of education in a country which continues to experience social, political and economic hardship.

“Senegal is mad about Liverpool,” he smiles. “And we try to use the game, and people like Sadio, as a tool, to show the kids what can be achieved if they go to school and if they work hard.

"For Senegalese people, when Sadio does well and when Liverpool win, it is like a victory for the whole country. It means everything.”

Salif Diao on Sadio Mane

Like most, Diao has watched Mane’s form this season with interest. To him, Liverpool’s No.10 is a superstar, a potential Ballon d’Or winner in the future. And his improvement over the past 12 months is down to one thing.

“If you look at last season when the Ballon d’Or list came out,” he says. “[Mohamed] Salah was right up there, but Sadio wasn’t. And that was purely because of the goals.

“Salah was more clinical in front of goal, and that was why he got all the awards and the praise at the end of the year.

“I think Sadio recognised that, and you can see how he has used that this season. He’s more focused in front of goal, he’s more clinical, and that is making the difference.

"He has taken another step, and I think if he carries on this development then we will have a great chance to win trophies, big awards, and he will get the kind of recognition that Salah has had.”

Diao of course, along with El-Hadji Diouf, became the first Senegalese footballer to play for Liverpool when joining the Reds after the 2002 World Cup.

His Anfield career was less distinguished than Mane’s, encompassing four years, 61 appearances and two loan spells away from the club. Nonetheless, he retains a strong affection. He still owns an apartment near the Albert Dock, and until recently his teenage son, Milan, was on the books at the Academy up in Kirkby.

“It’s still home to me,” he smiles. “I always say with Liverpool, the first thing you miss is the people. I have many friends there, and many great memories. It’s a fantastic place.”

Salif Diao on Jurgen Klopp

Diao remembers meeting Jurgen Klopp at the Academy on the German’s first full day in charge. He compares the Reds boss to the late Bruno Metsu, who famously guided Diao, Diouf and Co. to the World Cup quarter-finals with Senegal in 2002.

“Today, you cannot be only a good coach,” he says. “You have to be a great psychologist as well. You have to connect with players and find ways to get the best out of them.

“Klopp does that. He’s an extrovert, and a great communicator. I think that suits the people of Liverpool, because he shares their mentality. He is authentic and open, and the fans respond to that.

"You can see that there is synergy between the stands and the pitch, and that can make a big difference to a team.”

Diao hopes that “big difference” will be seen in the coming weeks, as Liverpool duke it out with Manchester City for the Premier League title, while simultaneously seeking to progress in the Champions League too.

“Everything is still on the table,” he says. “It’s all there to be taken.

“But no matter what, you see everything that is going on around the club, and it is just all so positive. The club is in good health, the team is doing well and, as a Senegalese, to have Sadio doing what he’s doing as well, it’s just perfect.

“Well, nearly perfect!”

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