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‘I had a contract from Manchester United then Jurgen Klopp rang’ – Sadio Mane

Senegal striker feels what he has achieved to this point is not enough as Europe’s top prize looms

Liverpool striker Sadio Mane in training ahead of his side's Champions League final against Real Madrid in Paris. Photo: PA/Reuters

Jamie CarragherTelegraph Media Group Limited

No sooner have I started interviewing Sadio Mane about his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or and I feel like a central defender being ambushed by Liverpool’s high press.

“Even you would have dreamed about winning the Ballon d’Or when you were a player!” Mane tells me.

“Even me? Is that a joke? Are you taking the mick out of me, Sadio?” I replied.

Mane hasn’t finished winding me up.

“I have been talking to your friend,” he continues.

Has Steven Gerrard been on the phone? Gary Neville doing another of his YouTube videos?

“Your best friend,” he continues cryptically.

“Who?” I ask.

“El Hadji Diouf,” says the Liverpool striker, his cheeky grin suddenly turning to roaring laughter. He is well aware of the chequered history between me and my old team-mate, the last Senegal superstar to come to Anfield.

“So this is my reward for saying you are my favourite Liverpool player?” I responded.

It is all good-humoured, of course, Mane in a jovial mood at the end of UEFA’s long open day ahead of tonight’s Champions League final.

This is his final media duty at the Axa training centre and I make a proposal.

“If we can sort it so that Karim Benzema gets the Ballon d’Or but you get the Champions League trophy, what would you say?”

“I would shake hands on that right now,” says Mane in an instant, before the laugh returns. “But then I would say it will be even better if I take both the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or! Honestly, it has never been something that bothered me.

“My dream was always to win a trophy with my national team. We had never won the Afcon (African Cup of Nations) before this year.

“Diouf always said that if he had the choice he would swap his two African Player of the Year awards for one African Nations Cup. That was always the most important trophy. But, of course, you dream of the Ballon d’Or, too. It would be a pleasure.”

Mane is accustomed to holding silverware, but this year is proving exceptional. It began with his winning penalty for Senegal at the Afcon, a feat he repeated in the World Cup qualifier against Egypt, before helping Liverpool to the first two of what they hope will be a glorious cup treble.

His legend is secure, but he remains dissatisfied with his medal haul.

“What I have done to this point, honestly, it does not feel like it is enough,” he says. “Right now, it all feels normal. For sure after my career I will see what I have done. I know it is special, but it feels normal to keep looking forward.

“I just want to win the Champions League Final. That feels like the most important game in my life. My dream is and always has been football. You win and then want to think of the next one. For as long as I am playing football, until the last day, I will be hungry for more.”

But he must acknowledge 2022 has been especially fulfilling and that he is in the form to be the match-winner in Paris?

“Yes. I believe that. I always put that in my mind,” he says. “Winning the African Nations was a massive moment for me and my country because we had never done it before.

“With the winning penalty you face this big pressure. For the first time, it affected how I was sleeping. Normally, I can always sleep more than five hours. I could not sleep for more than three.

“I tried to deal with it because it was tough mentally. I wanted to focus and I thought if that situation happened (with a penalty shoot-out) I would have the courage to do it.”

There is much talk of Liverpool needing to win the Champions League to compensate for narrowly losing the Premier League. I say the Champions League is the bigger trophy – it has more status, historic significance and global clout. Hundreds of players win a domestic title every season. Only an elite few can become continental champions.

“For sure, I would say it is more important to win the Champions League,” Mane agrees. “If you ask me directly, I say it is important to win both. But the Champions League will forever be special. Of course, I will always fight for both trophies. I know how important they are, especially for Liverpool. We want more Premier League trophies in the future.”

That sounds encouraging, Mane already thinking of Liverpool’s next title bid. Is he ready to follow Mohamed Salah and confirm he will still be at Anfield at the start of next season.

“Really, it is important I focus on the Champions League final,” he says, somewhat non-committal.

“I’ll be at the airport stopping you from leaving,” I reiterate. He laughs, but it is not a subject upon which he wants to dwell.

Whatever the future holds for him, Mane will always be the signing who kick-started a glorious era – as important to Jurgen Klopp as Ian St John and Ron Yeats were at the start of the Bill Shankly revolution in the 1960s.

I knew Mane had nearly joined other clubs before moving to Anfield in the summer of 2016, but had not realised just how far talks had progressed for him to join our rivals.

“I have to say, I was really close to going to Manchester United (laughs),” says Mane, still laughing. “I had the contract there. I had it all agreed. It was all ready, but instead I thought, ‘No, I want to go to Liverpool’. I was convinced to go with Klopp’s project. I still remember the first time I got the call from Klopp.

“I was watching TV. It was an action movie and he said, ‘Sadio, listen, I want to explain to you what happened at Dortmund’. That was when he thought of signing me for Dortmund and for some reason it didn’t work out. He tried to explain and I said, ‘It’s okay, it happens’. I forgave him. Then he said, ‘Now I want you at Liverpool’. And I said, ‘Okay, Dortmund is behind us, let’s focus on the future’.

“He said, ‘We have a big project at Liverpool and I want you to be part of it’. Then he asked what position I wanted, because he could see at Southampton I played on the right side and I used to play on the left. I said I prefer left, and then he said, ‘But Coutinho is on the left!’ So I said, never mind, I will play on the right. I could see myself in all the positions.”

As the most adaptable of strikers, I am interested to know if Mane thinks the age of the one-dimensional attacker – be it the goalscoring No 9, the target man, or the roaming deep assist-maker – is dead. At the elite level, forwards must be capable of shining anywhere in the front three.

“For sure, that is the future. An attacking player has to be able play all three positions,” says Mane.

“You can see yourself better in one position, but then you realise what is best for the team. It is important as a player to be able to try every situation in training. Usually when I train in front of the goal coming from the left it is easier for me to shoot with my right side, so I spent a lot of time doing it the other way. In my mind I can always be ready and change at any time. I shift my body in training between the left and right to prepare myself for the situations.”

The goal he scored versus Wolverhampton Wanderers last Sunday is the perfect example.

“Exactly, yes. It is something I am ready for,” says Mane. “When Mo joined he moved to the right and I went back to where I was with Red Bull Salzburg on the left. And now I go back to the centre. I enjoy all the positions.”

For all his success, there is still a sense of Mane being underrated. He was not one of the main contenders for either the PFA or FWA Player of the Year awards, nor was he on the Premier League’s shortlist – which seems an extraordinary omission given his form for club and country since January.

If he is influential in Paris, the audience of millions is likely to be more appreciative when judging the World Player of the Year, especially after what he did for Senegal.

“After I came back to Liverpool from the African Cup I saw we could win four competitions,” says Mane.

“Four was our target from the beginning with the great manager, staff and team we have. When you go into our dressing-room and see the boys you think, ‘Wow, what a great team. Let’s go for everything because we have the quality’.

“Winning two trophies gave us the motivation to keep going and go again. Okay, now we have two with the chance of another.

“The league was not to be. So we have to play the best team in the world, Madrid.”

Will that hunger for more be satisfied?

“We will do everything possible,” he says. “We can achieve something very special.”

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