Sadio Mane explains why he chose Liverpool over Man United and has no doubt who will win Monday night's showdown
Sadio Mané is allowing the questions to bounce off him rather like the defenders who find it impossible to shrug him off the ball. Suddenly, prompted by reminders of Liverpool’s recent victories over Arsenal and Chelsea, there is a turn of pace and shot fired with perfect execution. “We are going to beat Manchester United,” he says.
So mild-mannered and deliberate has he been with his words in the previous 15 minutes – and so rare is it to hear such a pre-match declaration from any player – clarification is sought. “You really think that?”
“Of course. We all believe it. We are going to make it,” he insists.
“It’s normal the fans and people will think this is a particular type of game. We know it’s one of the big games of the season. It might be like El Clásico but, really, when the games starts and you get on to the pitch, then you do have to treat it more like a normal game.”
For all the millions invested to rebuild Manchester United, there must be concerns at Old Trafford that Mané is demonstrating why he is the one that got away.
Van Gaal wanted to sign Mane
He was a prime target for Louis Van Gaal in the summer of 2015, and it was presumed to be the Saints’ unwillingness to negotiate that prevented the deal. The 24-year-old sees it differently, insisting it was his decision to stay when United bid £25 million. He believed his patience would be rewarded.
“In honesty, there were some clubs interested at that time but I never made any choices then,” he says. “I did not say I thought of any club and I wanted to play there. That kind of interest gave me a lot confidence on the pitch and made me believe in myself, but I knew this was because of my hard work and I was in a good way.
“Ronald Koeman was not happy with all the rumours because he wanted me to stay, but it was not too complicated because for me, also, it was not time to go. When I spoke to him I told him, ‘No problem, I will stay’. It was my decision. I wanted to stay at Southampton.
“I was patient because I remember after the first year [in England] I knew it was better to focus on Southampton. In my head I thought I would be there a couple more years and prove something. I was convinced I still had to prove something, improve more and learn more before I moved to a bigger club. But then I knew when the right time was for me. The extra year helped me get better, and it is important for every player to go step by step.
“It was only when Liverpool came in [last summer] that I never had a second thought and knew I wanted to join. It was different because then was the right moment for me. I finally came to Liverpool and I was happy with that, and now I’m happy I am playing against Manchester United.”
Mane has respect for Koeman
Mané speaks fondly of Koeman. “He was a great manager. Everybody liked him as a coach and a person and I will always thank him for what he did for me,” he says. He also credits Roger Schmidt, his former coach at Red Bull Salzburg (now at Bayer Leverkusen), for transforming his game.
Ask him to compare his previous coaches to Klopp, however, and he starts laughing. “No, no. I can’t say anything. I can’t compare,” says. “Everyone likes Klopp. He is one of the best in the world and for us to have the chance to have him is a coach makes us all happy. He has – I need to find the right word in English – it is a passion. An enthusiasm. He knows how to motivate players, engage with them and give you more confidence.
“He tells us all to always be hungry to win and become one of the best. “Whenever I play I know I have the support to help me.”
If the wisdom of Liverpool paying £32 million for Mané was queried in July, he has rapidly established himself as one of the most astute purchases, not only of last summer but recent Anfield history.
“This is something you have to accept in football. Someone will say you are overpriced, but I did not think about it,” he said. “Maybe I was overpriced but I believe in my quality and want to get better.
“If you know what you can do for your team, it becomes no problem and you don’t even think about it. You have to deal with it. I think I am getting better. Now my ambition is to win trophies with my team. We have the quality but it is still too early to say what will happen this year.”
If United find themselves lamenting missing out on Mané come Monday evening, Klopp may afford himself a wry smile. Not for the first time, the Liverpool manager was quizzed on United’s spending power ahead of their meeting, the two clubs sharing a glorious history but a vastly different approach to transfer activity.
Klopp and Mane embrace
While United were spending £80 million to re-sign Paul Pogba during the summer, Klopp was expressing bemusement when criticised for refusing to invest more than he felt necessary to strengthen his squad. He recouped more in sales than he paid.
“I don’t care about how much money another club can spend,” he said. “Absolutely not one second of my life. I’m completely fine we could spend and with what we did – and that’s not nothing. Having more money, or all the money in the world, is not in my dreams for the manager’s job. I never thought about this. So I’m completely fine with this situation.”
Klopp has been involved in three Liverpool v Manchester United fixtures, losing the Anfield Premier League meeting last season but successful over two legs in the Europa League.
“I like these kind of games and I like when football is in the middle of the interest,” he said Klopp. “I know there are a lot more important things in the world going on, but these kind of games everyone is looking forward to. And in Germany, of course, that’s the same when Dortmund play Schalke or Bayern Munich.
“I am quite optimistic because we have a wonderful opportunity to play a home game under the floodlights. It will be a fantastic atmosphere, and trying your best in a situation like this is the best thing I can imagine when I think of football.”