If ever a goal could sum up a player, this was it.
Sadio Mane’s pass was poor. A giveaway. He was not happy with himself.
So what did he do? Stand and sulk? Look around for a team-mate to blame?
Not a bit of it.
Liverpool’s Senegalese star is not wired that way. Instead, Mane hared after the ball, following it as Kurt Zouma rolled it back to Kepa Arrizabalaga in the Chelsea goal.
Kepa’s intention to pass out was good, but Mane read it, stretching out a foot to intercept, then firing the loose ball into the unguarded net with the goalkeeper scrambling.
Two-nil Liverpool. Game, set, match.
It took Mane only 10 minutes, either side of half-time, to bend this game to his will.
It was he who was fouled, crudely, by Andreas Christensen shortly before the interval, leading to the Chelsea defender’s dismissal.
Mane’s run, from out to in, was too good for the Denmark international, and so was Jordan Henderson’s pass from deep. The red card, awarded after referee Paul Tierney chose to view his pitchside monitor, was entirely correct. “I knew it was a red,” said Mane afterwards. Frank Lampard, unsurprisingly, disagreed. The Chelsea boss was wrong.
His side had struggled to contain Liverpool with 11 men, and with 10 they had no chance. Within nine minutes of the restart, Mane had the Premier League champions home and hosed.
His first goal was a gem, created by lovely slick interplay between Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, with the latter’s cross headed powerfully past Kepa by Mane, whose movement in the box was too much for Chelsea right-back Reece James.
Four minutes later came Kepa’s howler – the latest in a long line, it has to be said. You do not relax or take risks with Mane around.
“It’s what we train on the training pitch,” he told Sky Sports post-match. “He tried to pass, but unlucky for him it was a mistake. Lucky for me, I got the second goal for my team!”
Mane might have had more reward, too. It took a smart save from Kepa in stoppage time to deny him a hat-trick, courtesy of a stinging 25-yarder which took a deflection off Fikayo Tomori. And had Naby Keita’s touch been a little more sure half an hour earlier, he would have been in business again.
That’s the thing with Liverpool. If Salah doesn’t get you, Mane will.
That is five goals between them already, and with the Reds able to give a debut to new signing Thiago Alcantara at Stamford Bridge, the signs are ominous for the chasing pack.
Certainly Chelsea were no match for them here, even when both teams had 11 players. Lampard’s side chose to sit deep and look to counter through Timo Werner, but the gulf in class between the sides in terms of confidence and attacking shape was evident long before Christensen’s mishap. There were 33 points between the teams last season, and it showed.
The word is that Chelsea will look to replicate Liverpool’s success by building a free-flowing, free-scoring front three at Stamford Bridge. Good luck to them, but Werner, Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic – or Mason Mount, or Hakim Ziyech – will have to go some if they are to get anywhere close to the levels of Salah, Mane or Firmino, the latter of whom turned in a much-improved performance as Liverpool’s No.9. These are world-class players, proven performers who still have many more miles in the tank.
And so the champions roll on. Not top of the league at this stage – that honour goes to neighbours Everton after two rounds of matches – but very much back in business, and picking up a valuable clean sheet thanks to Alisson Becker’s first penalty save for the club, which put an end to Jorginho’s perfect record from the spot.
If there were any defensive concerns when, with Joe Gomez and Joel Matip absent through injury, Fabinho was named at centre-back, they were quickly calmed. The Brazilian was masterful alongside Virgil van Dijk. Do not be surprised to see him play there again as the season progresses. Liverpool are unlikely to buy a defender before the transfer window closes, Goal understands. Their business is done.
Today, though, belonged to Mane. The main man, the man for the big occasion, the man of the match. The “best player in the league”, according to ex-Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas.
I’ll say it again. Mané best player in the League.
— Cesc Fàbregas Soler (@cesc4official) September 20, 2020
What a performance, what a footballer.
Chelsea, for sure, will be glad to see the back of him.