With a red baseball cap perched on his head and a Liverpool scarf wrapped around his neck, Sadio Mane greeted his adoring audience as he paraded around town on Sunday in an open-top bus. In his mind, it was goodbye.
The Senegal international, who has just 12 months left on his contract, has decided the time has come for a new challenge this summer after six years at Anfield. Bayern Munich are big favorites to secure his signature as they target a replacement for outgoing Robert Lewandowski.
That’s not the news Liverpool fans wanted to hear following Saturday’s devastating Champions League final loss to Real Madrid in Paris.
If Mohamed Salah lit up the first part of the season, the second belonged to Mane. He scored 13 of his 23 goals after coming back triumphant after sending Senegal back to Africa Cup of Nations glory.
Mane flourished after being moved into the number nine role by Jurgen Klopp following the arrival of Luis Diaz from Porto. Earlier this month his manager described him as “a machine” and “world class” after keeping the title race alive by bringing the winner back to Aston Villa.
Prior to that, he had made a host of vital contributions – from equalizing at the Etihad to winning twice against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-finals. In the Champions League, he scored for Benfica in the first leg of the quarter-final and then in both semi-final matches against Villarreal.
The 30-year-old has proven beyond any doubt that he still has a lot to offer. He was a resurgent force rather than a fading force.
Having failed to agree an extension with him during this season, Liverpool knew there was always a danger that another member of Europe’s elite would take advantage of the situation and turn their heads.
Whether Mane gets his wish and moves to the Bundesliga depends on what kind of fee Bayern are willing to pay. New sporting director Julian Ward will lead a tough negotiation. There are no guarantees.
Senior Anfield sources have dismissed suggestions in Germany that a deal could be done for around €30m (£25.5m). Liverpool believe it would be better to keep Mane for another 12 months and lose him for nothing in 2023 than to do business for it. Liverpool value him at around €50m (£42.5m) and they would need a suitable replacement lined up before sanctioning a sale.
With Divock Origi leaving on a free transfer to AC Milan and Liverpool ready to listen to offers from Japan international Takumi Minamino, they certainly need at least one more striker. The arrival of Fabio Carvalho from Fulham will help but it would be wrong to expect too much, too soon from the teenager.
Mane’s departure would mark the end of an era at Anfield. He was the first transformative signing of Klopp’s reign. The injection of quality he provided after his £34million transfer from Southampton in 2016 helped Liverpool regain Champions League glamour. This gave them both the wealth and the power to attract first Mohamed Salah, then Virgil van Dijk and Alisson.
Having initially played on the right, Mane showed his versatility by switching to the left to accommodate Salah. Now it is equally accomplished by operating in the middle. Few have his skills.
The powerful three-pronged attack he formed with Salah and Roberto Firmino propelled Liverpool to Champions League and Premier League glory.
Next month, Salah will be 30 years old. Mane reached the historic birthday in April and Firmino turns 31 in October. All three have deals that last until 2023 and managing their contract situations has been an ongoing dilemma.
Renewing all three was always unlikely given that it would involve committing huge sums of money in salaries until their mid-30s. Allowing all three to leave in the same window would still be considered nonsense given the challenge of trying to replace them all in one go. It had to be staggered.
Keeping Salah has been the owners’ priority but talks have stalled midway through this season. The Egyptian isn’t going anywhere this summer but unless a compromise is found he will leave as a free agent at the end of 2022-23.
Klopp’s frontline has evolved over the past two years with the impact of Diogo Jota and then Diaz. The old guard has already been broken. Liverpool’s record in the transfer market is such that you’d back their recruitment staff to identify another gem.
But if this is the end of the road for Mane at Anfield, he will be greatly missed. Only 13 players in the club’s history have bettered its 120-goal run. He is a legend for what he achieved at Liverpool, but the sadness will also come from the belief that there is still plenty left in the tank. He’s not a player in his own right looking to get more involved elsewhere, he’s the man who led the line in club football’s greatest game.
“Come back to me after Saturday and I’ll give you the best answer you want to hear, that’s for sure. It’s special,” smiled Mane during last week’s media day at the AXA training center when asked about his future. “I’ll give you anything you want to hear then.”
Mane didn’t stop talking to the media after the Champions League final, but his decision was already made. He has given so much to Liverpool for so long that his legacy will live on. He will always be welcomed with open arms. If Bayern get their man, Liverpool will have big boots to fill.
(Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)