For once, Jurgen Klopp struggled to find the right words. The Liverpool boss was asked after the match whether it would be unfair if Sadio Mane didn’t claim the Ballon d’Or this year.
“Wow,” came the response. “I don’t know how to answer with the season not even over.”
While a somewhat premature poser – it’s not even May, after all – that nobody scoffed at the suggestion demonstrates how the Liverpool forward has revived his Anfield career since the turn of the year.
Winning the Africa Cup of Nations undoubtedly helped. With the Reds, though, the switch to a central striking position has been the true catalyst, as evidenced by his display in this Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.
Mane was asked to do a slightly different job, mainly staying high to occupy visiting centre-backs Pau Torres and Raul Albiol and provide space in which the midfield could operate.
It worked, Mane a constant pest, pressing persistently and a focal point off which fellow forwards Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz were able to play.
None more so than on 55 minutes, when Salah slipped a cute pass through for Mane to finish for his 20th goal of the campaign, the fourth time in five seasons he has reached such a landmark.
Certainly, if Liverpool are to win the Champions League – and bolster Mane’s hopes of global domination – the Senegalese is going to play an integral part.
Henderson leads by example
Jordan Henderson could play for 100 more years at Liverpool and he’ll still never convince a section of the Reds support.
But there’s a reason why Jurgen Klopp retains such faith in his captain. Particularly when the big occasion comes around.
Three years ago, it was Henderson who lit the blue touch paper on Liverpool’s remarkable Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona, his run and parried shot inviting Divock Origi to set the Reds on their way that famous night.
And while it wasn’t quite so dramatic – what could be? – Henderson was again the man who helped unlock Spanish last-four opposition in the shape of Villarreal.
Nor was it a surprise the midfielder should be the man to do so, his cross from the right deflecting off visiting left-back Pervis Estupinan and wrongfooting goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
That Henderson was even in that position emphasised an all-action performance from the captain, who, as against Manchester United, led by example with his pressing and covered plenty of ground. He set the tempo, the others followed.
With Fabinho mopping up magnificently, Thiago doing Thiago things and Naby Keita impressing during his cameo, this was a game won in midfield.
Full-backs’ vital role
It was almost the perfect Liverpool goal. With the Reds rampant having gone two goals up, Trent Alexander-Arnold swept the ball from the right for left-back Andy Robertson to volley home inside the area.
The Scot’s joy was cut short by an offside flag – a wry smile suggests he suspected it was coming – but there was plenty to celebrate in the performance of both players.
With Villarreal blocking the central routes, the full-backs, while so often key to Liverpool’s attacking approach, were vital in wearing down the visitors, the pair having 231 touches of the ball between them.
And the duo will be as much enthused by a third successive clean sheet in as many home games, the Reds having made the most of their recent run of Anfield games. Alisson Becker spent much of the game keeping warm.
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