By Robson Sharuko
HARARE-AFTER his heroics hogged the limelight in the latest round of the English Premiership on Sunday, with his double strike at the heart of Liverpool’s impressive six-goal destruction of Watford, Sadio Mane shifts his attention to national duty this weekend as a resurgent Senegal continue their search for a second appearance at the World Cup finals.
The forward, the most expensive African player in history at £34 million, scored twice at Anfield on Sunday to help Liverpool go into the international break top of the English Premier League amid surging belief in Merseyside that this could be the season when the Reds end more than a quarter-of-a-century’s wait for the league title.
Mane, who was lured from Southampton during the off-season, has now scored five goals at Anfield in his tally of six goals for Liverpool and his lively performance has earned him plaudits and an army of fans as he delivers at a club where Christian Benteke and maverick Italian Mario Balotelli failed to make an impact.
There were fears Mane could be weighed down by his huge price tag, and also playing for a very big team, but the Senegalese international is making a big impact at Liverpool where his countryman, El-Hadji Diouf – one of the heroes of the Lions of Teranga side that impressed at the 2002 World Cup – failed to impress.
He scored twice as Liverpool hammered Watford 6-1 to help the Reds, who have not won the English Premiership title since 1990, soar to the top of the table for the first time in two years.
As the Reds’ lively attacking football overwhelmed Watford on Sunday, the club’s faithful who sit on the Kop stand even had the temerity to sing a song saying Luis Suarez, the striker whose goals almost drove them to the league title two years ago before he was sold to Barcelona, would have struggled to find a place in the current first XI.
It’s a massive vote of confidence in the attack, in which Mane has featured prominently, and the Senegalese international forward now shifts focus to his nation’s World Cup cause when the Lions of Teranga take on Bafana Bafana at the Peter Mokaba Stadium this weekend in the latest battle for a place in Russia in 2018.
The last Senegalese side to play at the World Cup finals reached the quarter-finals in 2002, after beating then defending champions France in the first game of the tournament, and only a golden goal, scored by Turkey, prevented the Lions of Teranga from becoming the first African side to reach the last four.
There is excitement in Senegal that the latest generation of players is even better than the one that thrilled the nation 14 years ago and Mane leads a star-studded frontline which also features Stoke City forward, Mo Diouf, and Fenerbahce striker Moussa Sow who, however, is unavailable for this weekend’s match in South Africa.
Sow scored one of the best goals seen in European football this season when his spectacular overhead kick thrust the Turkish giants into the lead in their Europa Cup tie against Manchester United which Fenerbahce won 2-1 in Istanbul.
However, he hasn’t travelled to South Africa with his national team coach saying he was nursing a shoulder injury.
But Senegal, who beat Cape Verde 2-0 in their first 2018 World Cup group game, have a number of other potent forwards, including Mane, with Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba, whose side conceded a late goal as they picked a point in Burkina Faso in their first game, saying the Lions of Teranga deserve their place at the top.
“I think that thing (perception) is there that Senegal are the most favoured in this group,” Mashaba told the South African media. “Now that they are on top as well, it has halfway confirmed to a lot of people that they are the favourites.
“We’ve played Senegal (five) times, if not more than that, and we know what to expect from them. Last time we played against them, we won 1-0 in the Nelson Mandela Challenge, and they gave us a run for our money.
“We definitely need to make sure that when they come, they find us ready for them and we make sure we win that game.
“They are sitting on top of the log now with three points and we are on one, but winning this game unseats them to place us on top. That gives us a little bit of courage to go forward.”
Zimbabwe also have interest in the game in Polokwane this weekend with the Warriors, who will meet the Lions of Teranga in the 2017 Nations Cup finals in Gabon, expected to send a spy to South Africa.
The other Southern African giants battling for a place in Russia, Zambia, started their campaign on the back foot after they crashed 1-2 at home to a Nigerian side whose goals came from their English Premiership stars, Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and rising Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi.
Chipolopolo captain Rainford Kalaba said they now have to move mountains to try and qualify for their first World Cup finals with their next game this weekend being a date against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, who picked a point on the road to Algeria, in Limbe.
“I’m very disappointed and I’m very sorry to the nation,” Kalaba told the official Football Association of Zambia website after the defeat at the hands of the Super Eagles.
“We’re very disappointed to lose at home. It was very important to start well unfortunately we didn’t.
“Losing the first game leaves us with a lot of pressure but we still have a good team. There is just one mistake we need to rectify in the team and we’ll be okay.”
Other high-profile matches this weekend include the showdown between Nigeria and Algeria, which will showcase some of the best African players illuminating the English Premiership, Morocco host Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt battle Ghana and Guinea have a home date against a high-flying Democratic Republic of Congo.