Consistency key for Sadio Mane to round out Liverpool's dynamite front three
When Liverpool's much vaunted "Fab Four" were lighting it up in the opening months of last season, Sadio Mane was very much the George Harrison of the group. Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the headliners, while Roberto Firmino was Ringo Starr -- not always fully appreciated by the mainstream audience but with his own cult of dedicated followers.
Like Harrison, Mane was an important part of a successful group and everybody knew who he was, but he was overshadowed by his colleagues and was often in the background. Not exactly a peripheral figure, just not as heralded as the rest.
Coutinho moved on midway through last season and the "Fab Four" became a trio, yet Mane still remains very much third man. At most other clubs he'd be the star, but in Liverpool's forward line he remains the least glorified. Justifiably so given the accomplishments of Firmino and Salah.
All that could change this year, though. Mane struck twice in Liverpool's 4-0 win over West Ham United on opening weekend, continuing an impressive run that has seen him find the net 13 times in his past 17 appearances for the Reds.
It's only natural that Salah and -- to a lesser extent -- Firmino will get most of the attention. They performed at a higher level and more consistently than Mane did last year and the numbers are there to prove it. There's no shame in riding the coattails of "the Egyptian King" though, and Mane more than played his part in the success Liverpool's forward line enjoyed last year. Between the three of them, they plundered 91 goals. More than any trio in club history.
As a result of that you'll struggle to find any Liverpool fan (the sane ones anyway) calling for Mane to be replaced. He's a popular and a valued member of the side, but he isn't generally looked upon in quite the same lofty esteem as Firmino and Salah.
Put it this way: What if next summer Fabinho were to make good on his tongue-in-cheek promise of persuading Kylian Mbappe to move to Anfield? Who would be most under threat if the French sensation were to join the Reds? Certainly not Salah or Firmino. Mane has an opportunity to change that this year. He can make himself virtually untouchable, just like his two pals.
How? By upping his goal tally and avoiding the inconsistency that dogged him through parts of last season. Last year was a successful one for the former Southampton man, but his 20-goal return almost went under the radar because of the astonishing numbers posted by his two fellow forwards. Twenty goals would make him the top scorer for many clubs, but he was seven behind Firmino and a whopping 24 short of Salah's tally.
Most sides would give anything to get 20 goals from their third top scorer, so nobody at Liverpool has any complaints about Mane. But the truth is that as well as he did last year, he could easily have done better. In Europe he was on fire, bagging half of his goals during Liverpool's swashbuckling run to the Champions League final.
Domestically though, there was room for improvement. Ten Premier League goals was not a great tally for a player of Mane's quality in a team that creates as many chances as Liverpool do. Significantly, he's already a fifth of the way to matching that number after just one game this season. Realistically he should have ten by Christmas.
He began last year in scintillating form too until an unfortunate red card at Manchester City resulted in a three-game suspension and interrupted his rhythm. He was also hampered by a minor injury and it took him a little while to get going again.
He then suffered a midseason dip in form and looked to be struggling for confidence. It took a hat trick away at Porto in mid-February to get him fully back on track, and since then he hasn't looked back.
The great thing about Mane is that even when he's not playing particularly well he still makes things happen. If he doesn't score then he'll probably have an assist, or win a penalty, or make some sort of telling contribution. It's very rare that he makes no impression on a game, regardless of form.
When Liverpool play, all eyes are usually on Salah now, and that can work to Mane's advantage. While no one should rule out the possibility of Salah repeating what he did last year, it certainly won't be easy for him given the extra attention opponents will afford him given his sudden elevation into the realms of superstardom.
Being able to do it year in, year out is what has separated Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from everybody else. Salah is yet to prove he can do it over a longer period of time, but that doesn't mean he won't. Perhaps he can pick up right where he left off last year, but the more likely scenario is there might be a slight drop off in production from the Egyptian.
If that happens, Mane can be the main beneficiary. Liverpool's forward line should still be able to reach somewhere between 90-100 goals this season, but they will perhaps be shared around a little more equally than last year.
If Mane can avoid a repeat of last year's slump and produce his best form consistently, 30 goals is a more than realistic target for him this year. Should that happen, then perhaps he will no longer be the third name mentioned when people talk about Liverpool's brilliant front three.