In all, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane have shared a pitch, as teammates, for 16,143 minutes of their lives. That’s the equivalent of well over a week and a half, day and night, always striving, synchronising their movements, anticipating each other’s thoughts.
And scoring. Especially scoring. This pair have netted 228 goals between them for Liverpool in the time they have been on the field together.
Salah and Mane have spent quite a few hours together dressed up smartly in the waiting rooms and auditoriums of awards ceremonies, too. Sometimes the Senegalese ends up congratulating the Egyptian when an MC announces the prize-winner at these galas, as Mane did when Salah was named African Footballer of the Year in 2017 and 2018. Sometimes it is the other way round. Salah finished second to Mane for the award in 2019.
It is a relationship of friends as well as close colleagues - but on the terms you would expect of two fiercely competitive individuals. In those 16,143 shared minutes there have been a few where either Salah or Mane could be glimpsed frowning at the other one because of a misplaced pass, or when a shot was attempted when a pass would have been preferable.
But they have been terrifically good for each other, twin spearheads for Liverpool’s first English league title for 30 years, an achievement thoroughly stamped with the uplift Mane and Salah gave to the club once they were united by manager Jurgen Klopp in a dynamic forward line with Salah’s joining from Roma in 2017.
They shared a Champions League triumph, after a European Cup final swung Liverpool’s way when Mane won a penalty and Salah converted it very early on against Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid.
They have been Club World Cup winners together, and last month won their first English knockout trophy, the League Cup, as a pair. Salah converted one of the penalties in Liverpool’s impeccable, marathon shoot-out at Wembley against Chelsea.
Two weeks earlier, he had been in tears after a shoot-out that went wrong for Egypt, in Yaounde, Cameroon. Among those consoling him was Mane. They had just completed their fifth career hour on a competitive field together as opponents.
This, the third time they had met as figureheads for Egypt’s Pharaohs and Senegal’s Lions, was, of all their three meetings as rivals, the one with the highest stakes and the narrowest margin.
It was the Africa Cup of Nations final. It was always going to focus on Salah and Mane, the latter failing from the penalty spot during the first half. It remained goalless after extra-time. Mane converted his spot-kick in the shoot-out and Egypt had already lost the penalties before Salah, their fifth designated spot-kicker, had a chance to keep them in the contest. Mane put a comforting arm around his shoulder.
The opportunity to adjust the balance has come quickly. Spread between Friday evening in Cairo and Tuesday in Dakar, at least three hours of visceral, highly-charged battle will divide Mane and Salah again as Egypt and Senegal play off, over two legs, for the right to be at the 2022 World Cup.
It looked the most competitive of Africa’s five play-offs when those two nations, finalists at the 2017 and 2019 Afcons respectively, were drawn against each other early last month. When they then finished first and second at the 2022 Afcon, it confirmed that.
“Until now, Mo and I haven’t talked about the Afcon final,” Mane assured reporters, smiling that he suspected they would not believe him, just before he left England for Senegal duty this week. “I know he’s still disappointed.”
What the pair have discussed is the moments before Mane’s missed penalty in the Afcon final. Salah seemed to be earnestly briefing Egypt’s goalkeeper, Gabaski, about his Liverpool team-mate’s spot-kick technique. Mane interrupted their conversation with a wry comment: “Mo,” he said to Salah, ‘Tell him I’ll put it to his right-hand side”.
“Mind games,” Mane joked about the incident.
There will be plenty more psychological by-play over the next five days. Doubts over Salah’s fitness - he picked up a minor knock for Liverpool in their win against Brighton two weeks ago - had been heavily trailed before he was declared available for the play-off, and Egypt’s head coach, Carlos Queiroz has urged Egyptians to make home advantage in Friday’s first leg feel overwhelming for Mane’s African champions.
“We must fill the houses and windows with the Egyptian flag,” Queiroz told the broadcaster ONTime. “I want parents to dress their children in the national team shirt. We need supporters to be as motivated as the players are. They can make the difference.”