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Africans Abroad: African talent underpins Liverpool’s European success

Liverpool’s Champions League success in 2018-19 represents one of the most significant African contributions ever made to a European Cup-winning team.

The Reds defeated Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in Madrid on Saturday as they conquered Europe for the sixth time, and ended their 14-year wait for the continental crown.

Mohamed Salah opened the scoring with a second-minute penalty — the second-fastest goal in the fixture’s history — before Divock Origi added a second in the 87th minute to kill any hope of a Spurs comeback, which had been threatened for much of the second half.

Salah has rightly been lauded as the key protagonist in the crowning moment for Jurgen Klopp’s fine team, and his goal ensured that he became the fifth African player to score in the final’s history.

Rabah Madjer, Didier Drogba, and Samuel Eto’o all scored in winning efforts for FC Porto, Chelsea, and Barcelona respectively, while Sadio Mane found the net against Real Madrid a year ago as Liverpool were defeated in Kyiv.

Salah may have opened the scoring at the Wanda Metropolitano, but it was Mane who won the penalty, with his cross meeting Moussa Sissoko‘s outstretched arm after just 26 seconds to give Liverpool the early advantage.

Beyond the opening exchanges, it was a quiet outing for Salah and Mane, although the duo’s decisive contribution to the season showpiece has capped off a magnificent campaign for the pair – both in Europe and domestically.

In the Premier League, they shared the Golden Boot with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal after the trio each struck 22 goals.

With eight assists, Salah is one of only two players — the other being Eden Hazard — to end the year with 30 or more direct goal contributions, as he carried on in style following a record-breaking maiden season at Anfield.

In Europe, Mane may have fallen short of the 10 goals he netted in 11 Champions League outings last season, but he nonetheless reaffirmed his status as one of European football’s genuine big-game players with a series of outstanding displays.

He almost single-handedly brought down Bayern Munich away from home in the Round of 16, and his pirouette to disorientate Manuel Neuer before impudently chipping home past the stranded German stopper was a moment of technical class and rare composure.

It will be remembered as one of the defining contributions to Liverpool’s triumphant campaign.

UEFA’s Technical Observers named Mane, and not Salah, in their Champions League 2018-19 Squad of the Tournament, which is testament to the influence the Senegal international has enjoyed as one of the figureheads of Klopp’s team this term.  

Shades of 2012 

Mane’s performance against Bayern — he added Liverpool’s third in the 84th minute — was reminiscent of Drogba’s showing against the same opponent in the 2012 final at the Allianz Arena.

On that occasion, with Chelsea a goal down and staring at the ultimate disappointment with two minutes of regular time remaining, the Ivorian headed in an equaliser that halted the engraver in his tracks and took the tie to extra time.

Drogba struck the decisive penalty, breaking Bayern hearts and ensuring that Chelsea became London’s first European champions.

That occasion represented the first time that four African players had been on the winning side in a Champions League final, with Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel playing the match, and Michael Essien an unused substitute.

Drogba, however, was the star, with his final goal the sixth of a campaign in which he’d also opened the scoring in the second-leg Round of 16 comeback against Napoli, and then nabbed the winner in a semifinal first-leg triumph over Barca. 

Kalou also played his part, scoring the only goal of the game away at Benfica in the first leg of the quarterfinal, while Mikel’s semifinal neutralising of Lionel Messi were among his best performances in a blue shirt.

Barcelona themselves have enjoyed a UCL success underpinned by key African performances, most notably in 2009, when Yaya Toure, Seydou Keita and Man of the Match Eto’o all featured as Manchester United were defeated in Rome.

However, while that trio all made big contributions during Barca’s run to the final, they didn’t perhaps enjoy the influence within that team — a side containing Lionel Messi, Xavi, Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta — that either Drogba did at Chelsea in 2012, or Salah and Mane have done this campaign. 

Unsung Heroes 

One of the overlooked subplots of Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final – and their victory on Saturday – has been the growth of Joel Matip throughout the second half of the season.

The Cameroon defender began the season as the fourth choice centre-back at Anfield, having failed to convince since his arrival from Schalke 04 in July 2016. He struggled with injuries and has taken his time to adapt to English football. 

However, despite being in the colossal shadow of Virgil van Dijk, Matip has taken the chances afforded him by injuries to Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren to step into a pivotal role for the Reds.

In fact, he’s emerged as an ideal foil for the more physical Dutchman, with the duo – along with Alisson – ensuring that a major area of weakness for Liverpool has become a strength.

Matip’s performance on Saturday was exceptional. Despite the scale of the occasion, the defender demonstrated exceptional poise on the ball — one pass out of defence, beating Spurs’ press and setting Andy Robertson on the offensive — was both delicate and daring in its vision and execution, while the defender created two goalscoring opportunities during the match (more than any other Reds player). 

Defensively, no Liverpool player won more aerial battles, while Matip’s 14 clearances was eight more than any other player on the pitch. 

Time and time again, the defender would relieve the pressure on the Reds’ backline, and, ominously for Premier League strikers, he’s appearing increasingly unruffled in the big games.

Then there’s Naby Keita.

The Guinea international wasn’t involved in the final after picking up an adductor injury in the first leg of the semifinal victory over Barcelona, although he too had played his part in the Reds’ run to the final with sterling performances at home against Bayern and Porto.

In the first match, he repeatedly broke down the visitors’ attacks before carrying the ball through the heart of the park, while in the second, he was arguably Liverpool’s top performer, opening the scoring and making a game-high eight tackles.

Keita may have sat out Saturday’s final, but he was one of the unsung heroes of the Reds’ continental campaign, and will surely be a key man as Liverpool’s African core look to retain their European title next term.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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