Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 July 2019

Salah and Mane at Liverpool, Aubameyang at Arsenal - Premier League teams built around African excellence

Three African players shared the Premier League's Golden Boot honours this season

Mohamed Salah, left, and Sadio Mane always seem to be competing in the goal chart - whether it is for club or country. Reuters
Mohamed Salah, left, and Sadio Mane always seem to be competing in the goal chart - whether it is for club or country. Reuters

The goal that sealed the Premier League? Take your pick.

Manchester City’s second against Brighton & Hove Albion, the one that gave them the lead and edged them into the driving seat on the see-saw, last-day wrestle for top place? Riyad Mahrez set it up, with a devilishly curled corner for Aymeric Laporte to meet.

The goal that really confirmed City’s title? Probably the next one in the 4-1 win. Mahrez scored it, with a rocket, after a trademark slalom. It was a good day for the Algerian, a reminder, after spending much of 2019 on the bench, of why City paid £60 million (Dh285.4m) for him and why he was once his continent’s player of the year.

It was a big day for various African Footballers of the Year, endorsing how vital players from Africa have been in this, a season that has boosted more than any the Premier League’s sense of its global pre-eminence.

This was a season that provided a cliffhanger title-race between two high-class contestants watched across the world, and filled all the places in the major European club finals with English clubs.

Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the 2015 African Footballer of the Year, struck two goals at Burnley, less than 72 hours after his hat-trick in Valencia had propelled Arsenal to the Europa League final. It took his tally for the league season to 22 and meant Aubameyang caught up with reigning African Footballer of the Year’s Mohamed Salah’s total.

Nobody at that point had scored more Premier League goals in 2018/19 than the Gabonese or the Egyptian, although 19 minutes after Aubameyang’s second, the striker who had done everything to keep Liverpool in the title-race well into Matchday 38 joined them.

Sadio Mane’s 21st goal of the league season against Wolverhampton Wanderers put Liverpool top of the table for 21 minutes of the climactic afternoon. The Senegalese’s 22nd, nine minutes from full-time, would not depose City from the summit, but it did place Mane joint top of the Golden Boot rankings.

So three Africans share that prize, 66 Premier League goals between them. And this was no one-off. Salah, Mane and Aubameyang have 93 league goals between them since last February, when Aubameyang made his debut for Arsenal, a winter signing from Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s a good sign for the continent,” said Aubameyang. “We are all representing Africa, and I like these two guys [Salah and Mane].”

Salah and Mane talk about their close bond, too, occasionally as a reassurance that they are partners before they would ever be rivals in any chase for the best individual goalscoring statistics.

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Premier League team of the season

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There have been one or two moments when the question has been posed, when, say, a Salah decision to shoot rather than to pass to Mane has looked the wrong decision. But after two spectacular seasons together, the ledger is balanced: Mane has assisted eight Salah goals; Salah, who scored 32 league goals in 2017-18, has assisted the same number for Mane.

Theirs is a Liverpool increasingly built around African excellence. Joel Matip, the Cameroon international, has developed impressively this season, a trusted partner for Virgil Van Dijk in central defence.

Naby Keita, the Guinea midfielder, made important contributions to a historic campaign, though his has been disrupted by injury, the latest setback, knee ligament damage, ruling him out of the Uefa Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur next month.

In that competition, Salah and Mane have four goals each, and a chance to add to those, to reward Liverpool’s endeavours with a trophy, and to then carry their momentum forward into a big summer.

The Africa Cup of Nations, to be staged in Salah’s Egypt, starts in late June. A match-winning performance in Madrid against Spurs, in the year’s biggest club showpiece, by Salah or Mane and followed by a stellar Cup of Nations might just swing the Ballon D’Or in the direction of an African footballer for the first time since Liberia's George Weah won it almost a quarter of a century ago.

Updated: May 14, 2019 03:17 PM

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