Sadio Mane can form a formidable partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr

Veteran stars can blossom in Saudi Pro League if they synchronise their strengths

Al Nassr's Sadio Mane with club CEO Ahmed Alghamdi during his unveiling. Reuters
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A couple of days after Cristiano Ronaldo played his last match for Manchester United, Sadio Mane was limping off the pitch at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena. There were only 20 minutes on the clock at Bayern’s Bundesliga meeting with Werder Bremen.

The bad news arrived at a pause. It turned out Mane had sustained a calf injury far more serious than first thought. It would turn out to be a significant breaking point in his difficult relationship with Bayern.

Mane, whose move from the German champions to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League was completed on Tuesday, might now reflect on the shared timing of their ruptures with previous employers when he sits down in Riyadh with Ronaldo, now a team-mate and a fellow star in a league acquiring some of the most medalled footballers in the world.

Mane and CR7 can share many stories. There are the fall-outs at their previous clubs, teams they had joined amid such high expectations. Ronaldo celebrated as a ‘homecoming’ his return to an OId Trafford where he had, as a young winger, blossomed into a global superstar. Last November, he then clashed very publicly with a United hierarchy he said had “betrayed” him.

Mane, for his part, joined Bayern a year ago as, in the words of Jurgen Klopp, “a world-class player, on a high, in really good shape.” He leaves Bayern having fallen short, in the period either side of the fibula injury that also ruled him out Senegal’s World Cup campaign, of his and the club’s targets.

Mane came to Bavaria as a senior striker who, if not like-for-like in terms of skill-sets, was a replacement for Bayern’s record-breaking Robert Lewandowski. He finished up with 12 goals from 38 games, but was increasingly reconciled to starting on the substitutes bench. Frustrations were not always contained. He had a dressing-room confrontation with Leroy Sane that led to him being fined and briefly suspended by the club.

“I don’t know what went wrong,” added Klopp, who prized Mane hugely as manager of Liverpool for six years, grateful for his crucial contributions to Premier League and Champions League successes. “To fulfill your potential, I think everything has to fall into place. Luck is helpful too and that was obviously not the case: a bad injury in a horrible moment [meant] the World Cup was gone. Sadio is a proud man and that he couldn’t lead his country at a World Cup was brutal.”

Here’s more common ground with Ronaldo, whom Mane will partner in a de luxe forward line of two proud and patriotic men. On the one hand the Portuguese who led his country to their first and so far only European championship at the age of 31; on the other, the Senegalese who spearheaded his nation’s greatest ever achievement, a maiden lifting of the African Cup of Nations at the age of 30.

Of all the processions to the Pro League in this transformative summer, the one that comes in jangling with African medals is almost the most eye-catching: the spine of the Afcon holders’ squad is now reassembled in Jeddah and Riyadh, with Senegal’s Edu Mendy in goal for Al Ahli, Kalidou Koulibaly marshalling Al Hilal’s defence and Mane aspiring to find a way past both for Al Nassr.

The reigning African Footballer of the Year - Mane - also joins the 2016 winner of that award, Al Ahli’s Riyad Mahrez, as a Pro League initiate.

Other familiars pepper Mane’s imminent diary. Al Nassr begin their league season against Al Ettifaq, now the club of Jordan Henderson, a team-mate for almost 200 Liverpool matches. Al Ahli’s Roberto Firmino was for many years a generous, tuned-in attacking partner for Mane and Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, part of a trio in which personal, competitive pride occasionally surfaced but which mostly functioned so effectively because they understood how best to dovetail.

Mane’s tandem with Ronaldo will blossom if they too can synchronise their strengths, if neither hogs the left channel of attack at the expense of the other and both are alive to one another’s expert, off-the-ball runs. Even into their 30s, both can become to the other as Karim Benzema - now at Al Ittihad - used to be to Ronaldo at Real Madrid, a perfect foil; or as Firmino used to be to Mane at Liverpool.

At Bayern, the transfer of Mane, for a shade under the €30m they paid Liverpool for him a year ago, has given impetus to their latest attempt at replacing Lewandowski, in the form of a club record bid to prise Harry Kane from Tottenham Hotspur.

The German club have needed patience and persistence so far in pursuing Kane. They will bank on the likelihood that anybody stepping into Mane’s old Bayern boots will have more luck in the role than the Senegalese did.

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Updated: August 02, 2023, 5:58 PM