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Sadio Mane made Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp want to punch himself over transfer mistake

For the umpteenth time, Sadio Mane was completely justifying the expectations of Jurgen Klopp.

Yet all the German wanted to do was punch himself.

The sight of the Senegalese tearing up another defence served only to remind Klopp what might have been had he not erred on the side of caution in the summer of 2014.

Having tracked Mane’s progress since an impressive showing in the 2012 Olympics, the then Borussia Dortmund boss held talks with the RB Salzburg player over a possible move to the Westfalenstadion.

“I made a mistake,” said Klopp. “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!

“At Dortmund we could only get one player for this position, not two or three, so it needed to be exactly the right fit in this moment.

“About three months later I would have punched myself, so I already knew that the next chance I have, I would take it.”

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But when such an opportunity arrived two years later with Klopp preparing to stamp his authority with a first summer transfer market in the Liverpool hotseat, Mane hadn’t been the initial focus of attention.

Only when the Reds boss had to admit defeat in his attempt to lure former Dortmund protege Mario Gotze from Bayern Munich did he return to the player whose headwear had left him so befuddled two years previous.

Mane, for his part, had flirted with Manchester United in the January – then Southampton boss Ronald Koeman dropped him when such interest intensified – and was also on the radar of Tottenham Hotspur.

But he’d left several reminders for Klopp the previous season. Mane scored and was sent off in the German’s third game in charge, a 1-1 home draw with Southampton, and netted the Saints’ early opener in an eventual 6-1 win for the Reds in the League Cup a few months later.

And in the March, with Liverpool leading 2-0 at half-time at St Mary’s, Mane came off the bench to miss a penalty and score twice – his first goals in four months – as Southampton fought back to win 3-2.

“It was a pretty simple decision with Sadio,” said Klopp. “When the club came this summer and Michael Edwards said we have an opportunity, there were no talks necessary any more. It was a case of ‘Let’s do it’.

“Since I came here I have spoken to the staff a lot about him and have always felt he could be a very good signing for us.

“He would have been more expensive if we had taken him to Dortmund and then he had been sold to Liverpool, so all good for Liverpool. The more I think about it, that was my first Liverpool decision. Nice!”

Southampton, growing tired of regularly having their top talent cherry-picked by the Reds, wanted £40million but, after several weeks of haggling, a £30m deal was agreed.

Liverpool could also thank a former manager for setting Mane on his path to Anfield, with Gerard Houllier helping take him to Salzburg from struggling Metz. But for the player, Klopp was the main influence over his move north.

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“I spoke with him and I think he played a big role in me coming to Liverpool and I want to thank him for all the confidence,” said Mane.

“He said he wanted me to come and I didn’t try to ask myself questions as I was convinced Liverpool was the right club for me. It is the right club, right coach and right moment to change.”

Mane’s performances during pre-season had prompted quiet excitement, not least a goal in the 4-0 friendly win over Barcelona at Wembley.

But nobody was quite expecting the calling card the Senegalese delivered on his competitive debut with a thrilling run and shot into the top corner at the Emirates against Arsenal. Even his manager got carried away.

“It’s not allowed to celebrate a fourth goal when there’s still 30 minutes to go,” said Klopp. “I knew it in the moment that I shouldn’t celebrate but it was too late, I had Sadio on my back!”

Liverpool held on to win 4-3 and it was an indicator of what was to come for both the player and the team that campaign.

Mane, playing on the right flank, scored a further eight goals – the highlight a late winner at Goodison – and contributed seven assists before being compelled to head to Gabon for Africa Cup of Nations duty with Senegal in January 2017.

It was during his absence that Mane’s influence became apparent, Liverpool losing both legs of their League Cup semi-final against his old club Southampton and beaten at home by struggling Swansea City in the Premier League. They won just one in seven games and netted only five times.

Mane returned from a disappointing international sojourn – his missed penalty against Cameroon cost Senegal a place in the semi-finals – and scored against Everton and Arsenal while netting a quickfire brace in the win over Tottenham Hotspur. But his outing in the Anfield derby was cut short by a collision with Leighton Baines, suffering a knee injury which subsequently ended his season.

The arrival of Mohamed Salah in the summer of 2017 saw Mane shunted from the right flank to the left to accommodate the Egyptian, and it hampered his game. After a red card for a high boot on Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson in Liverpool’s 5-0 loss, the Senegalese then suffered a hamstring problem and a broken finger, meaning he appeared in only three of the Reds’ next 10 games.

He was out of form to such an extent he was dropped for the visit of Chelsea with Klopp compelled to hold talks with the player after a difficult Anfield derby in which he was responsible for a poor miss in a game Liverpool failed to win.

But the January 2018 departure of Philippe Coutinho saw the attacking triumvirate of Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino finally settle with the Senegalese the beneficiary. Mane scored 13 times in the second half of the season, more than half of which were in the Champions League knockout stages including the final, although the Reds lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in Kiev.

Mane took on Coutinho’s number 10 shirt the following campaign and scored 17 times after the turn of the year as Liverpool pushed Manchester City all the way in an epic title race before going one better in the Champions League with victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the final, Mane winning the penalty for Salah’s early spot-kick opener.

The title-winning campaign of 2019/20 saw Mane again sparkle, netting 22 times including five match-winning strikers. Last season, though, was a struggle, a good start halted by a bout of coronavirus with the forward admitting he couldn’t understand his lack of form after just three Premier League goals between October and April.

Mane rediscovered his mojo during the closing months and contributed four goals and four assists in the 10-game unbeaten run that pushed Liverpool into third place, netting the two goals on the final day win against Crystal Palace that secured Champions League qualification.

With supporters back and the Reds returning to full strength, a refreshed Mane – after his first summer break as a Liverpool player – will look to continue a record that has seen him next 97 goals in 218 appearances.

Klopp’s “first decision” as Liverpool boss has been more than justified.

A version of this story was first published on May 11 2020

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