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African All Stars

Does Mahrez really belong in Mane, Salah shadow?

11:26 GMT 22/02/2022
Salah Mahrez Mane
As the Manchester City superstar turns 31, GOAL assess his legacy among the greatest African names of his generation

Does Riyad Mahrez, who turned 31 on Monday, truly get the credit he deserves for a thoroughly remarkable career so far?

Increasingly, in recent years, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have stood at the pinnacle of African football, consistently being feted as the two greatest players from the continent.

Mahrez has been in the conversation, but more often than not, has been considered a firm third to the Liverpool duo, even though all three have achieved remarkable things at the pinnacle of the sport.

It’s fair indeed that Salah and Mane receive the plaudits they do, particularly at the moment in light of what both have achieved for club and country respectively.

The duo were architects of two Liverpool runs to the Champions League final—including the victory over Tottenham Hotspur in 2019—and were influential as Jurgen Klopp’s Reds ended their three-decade wait for the Premier League crown in 2020.

Salah has inspired Egypt to two Africa Cup of Nations finals—both ending in defeat—and delivered some of the best performances of his career as the North African giants qualified for the 2018 World Cup, their first since 1990.

His record-breaking goal haul in his first season at Liverpool—where he broke the goalscoring record for a 38-game Prem campaign—arguably doesn’t get the credit it deserves, while he followed that up with another Golden Boot the season after.

He’s been criticised for dips in form—despite maintaining supremely high standards—and a perceived selfish attitude, but his outrageous goal return in 2021 rightly dragged him into the conversation for the Ballon d’Or.

Indeed, certain high-profile football figures believe that the attacker ought to have finished higher in the standings for the top player in the world game.

With 17 goals this season, he’s five goals clear of the league’s next highest scorer—Diogo Jota—while nine assists puts him behind only Trent Alexander-Arnold in the division’s creativity stakes.

Mane isn’t having as mesmerising a season at club level as Salah, but he’s still had a hand in 10 league goals this term—including nine strikes for himself—and his performance against Arsenal in November (one of several standouts) was one of several truly world-class displays.

Like Salah, Mane has been influential in Liverpool’s successful years under Klopp, while he was also the star performer at this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, netting the decisive penalty in the shootout as the Teranga Lions won their first continental title.

It was the kind of major tournament performance that embellishes Mane’s already legendary status, while he too—like Salah—inspired his nation to the World Cup, ending their long wait for qualification, and has starred in two runs to the Afcon final.

Like Salah, Mane has tasted defeat in the continent’s biggest fixture before—in 2019—but unlike his teammate, the Senegal superstar has now finally got his hands on the big one.

This weekend, Mane equalled Didier Drogba’s longstanding 104-goal haul in the Premier League, becoming the division’s joint second all-time African scorer—behind only Salah, who broke the Ivorian’s record earlier this year.

Their standings in the goal charts is one of the reasons why the duo are feted as the greatest African stars of their generation, and arguably numbers one and two in the history of African players in the top flight.

But doesn’t Mahrez belong firmly in the conversation?

He may not have had the outrageous goal hauls of Mane or Salah, but Mahrez’s return of 74 is similarly impressive considering much of his Prem career was spent with Leicester City—a club not enjoying the possession dominance of Liverpool—and in a more creative/supporting role.

While Mahrez is yet to win the Champions League—missing out in the final last year—his three Premier League titles blow Mane and Salah out of the water.

Similarly, he’s also clinched a swathe of further honours in English football, including the Championship with Leicester, the 2019 FA Cup and three EFL Cups. Few would bet against Mahrez and City claiming further silverware this season, even if they’re unable to extend their EFL Cup dominance in this year’s final.

All three players are former African Footballers of the Year and have won the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year award, with Mahrez and Salah also winning the PFA Players Player of the Year award.

Like Mane, Mahrez is a former Africa Cup of Nations winner, netting the semi-final winner against Nigeria and making the Team of the Tournament as Algeria ended their wait for the gold in 2019.

He’s more decorated than either, with only goal return and Ballon d’Or prominence arguably keeping him a rung below the Anfield pair in the public psyche.

Yet Mahrez’s career story—both his outrageous contribution to Leicester’s miraculous title display and then his establishment at Pep Guardiola’s City—surely merit him being considered the equal of his Premier League rivals.

Indeed, Mahrez’s role in Leicester’s title triumph is arguably the greatest achievement by an African player in the world’s greatest league, as the playmaker had a hand in 28 goals to take the rank outsiders to an unbelievable title. This feat surely eclipses Mane’s Nations Cup triumph or Salah’s World Cup heroics with Liverpool.

Perhaps it will take Champions League success, more Premier League glory, and even a memorable World Cup for Mahrez to truly stand alongside Salah and Mane in the pantheon of African greats, but for many of us, the birthday boy belongs there already.