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Africa Cup of Nations

Salah vs Mane: Which of Liverpool's 'warriors' will be smiling after Afcon 2021 final?

11:00 GMT+3 06/02/2022
Mohamed Salah Sadio Mane Egypt Senegal Afcon 2022 GFX
Egypt take on Senegal in Sunday's showpiece final, and Jurgen Klopp and his Reds players will be watching with great interest

Sunday will be quite a day for Liverpool.

First, at lunchtime, they return to competitive action at Anfield, hosting Cardiff City in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

It’s a game that should see the long-awaited return of Harvey Elliott (and perhaps Thiago Alcantara too), and which could well give Reds fans a first glimpse of Luis Diaz, the club’s new £50 million ($67m) signing from Porto.

And then, in the evening, comes the follow up. Mohamed Salah vs Sadio Mane. Egypt vs Senegal, a straight shootout for Africa Cup of Nations glory.

“Exciting!” smiled Jurgen Klopp on Friday. The Reds boss will be tuning in, for sure, as two of his star men go head-to-head on the biggest stage.

The Liverpool players’ WhatsApp group, as you might expect, has already been buzzing in anticipation for the showdown. “Will there be a handshake?” wondered one message, tongue-in-cheek, of course. 

Of course there will be. Much is made of the relationship between Salah and Mane, but much of it is overblown.

The pair are friends as well as team-mates; they were pictured together after their respective quarter-finals, and there will be a warm embrace before and after Sunday’s final, regardless of the outcome.

It is amusing, now, to recall Mane’s pre-tournament message to Salah and Naby Keita, the third of Liverpool’s Afcon trio. 

He knew, didn’t he?

“Unfortunately, I can’t play against two teams in the final,” Mane said, grinning from ear to ear, in a video posted by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) last month. 

“I don’t know if it’s going to be Egypt or Guinea but... one-nil, whichever of you!”

We will soon see if he really is a fortune-teller.

Senegal are yet to win an Afcon tournament, twice losing in the final in 2002 and 2019, but Mane’s form, and the presence of other high-level performers such as Edouard Mendy (Chelsea), Idrissa Gana Gueye (Paris Saint-Germain) and Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), means they head into Sunday as favourites. 

It would, however, take a brave soul to discount Salah and Egypt, the record seven-time winners.

They may not be as flamboyant as other sides in the competition, but they have shown remarkable resilience, winning penalty shootouts against both Ivory Coast and, on Thursday night, hosts Cameroon, while edging out Morocco in extra-time in the quarter-finals.

In Salah, they have the continent’s best player, someone at the very top of his game, relentlessly pursuing goals and wins and medals and individual accolades.

An Afcon triumph would certainly help, in terms of the latter. There was widespread bemusement – not least from the man himself – when Salah placed only seventh on the recent Ballon d’Or list.

However, success with Egypt and with Liverpool, where he is still in the hunt for four competitions and on course for a third Premier League Golden Boot, would make him impossible to ignore this time around, surely.

As for Mane, well he’s a slightly different character to Salah, a little less overt and a little less serious, although his jovial nature should certainly not be mistaken for a lack of drive or ambition.

Like Salah with Egypt, he is, in Klopp’s words, “the absolute leader” of Senegal, and he knows the reception that would be waiting for him back home, should he return with the big prize.

He is already a hero, but an Afcon medal would cement his status as his country’s greatest ever player.

These things matter, and it was interesting to hear Klopp talking about the potential knock-on effects for Liverpool, once the players return to Merseyside next week.

“Obviously, it’s not so easy now to watch the game,” he told reporters on Friday. “Because we know one of them will definitely be really happy after it, and the other one much less so.

“But all the experiences that these boys get in these situations will help us. Short term? I’m not sure, but long term definitely.

“It will help them as well. They are the superstars of their country, so the pressure on their shoulders is massive, and I am really proud of how they deal with it.

"These two boys are real warriors. They are experienced players and real leaders too. And now they are both in the final.”

It promises to be an intriguing showdown, and it would be no surprise at all if one or both were to step up and deliver. The big stage, after all, is made for big players.

Mane has already scored three times in the tournament, including the clincher in Wednesday’s win over Burkina Faso, while Salah has netted twice, as well as converting the decisive penalty in the last-16 triumph against Ivory Coast. 

Klopp watched that game at home, and smiled when asked by GOAL on Friday if he had been confident Salah would score.

“I know Mo had no doubt, so why should I?!” came the reply.

Sunday, of course, will not be the last high-stakes clash between Mane and Salah this year.

In March, Senegal and Egypt will meet in a two-legged play-off for World Cup qualification. Just as in Europe, where one of Portugal or Italy will miss out, there will be at least one African heavyweight absent in Qatar.

That, though, is a worry for another day. For now, the focus is on Yaounde. Destiny beckons and glory awaits.

Which of Liverpool’s superstars will be left smiling?