Jamie Carragher (Bootle, England, 1978), the most intimidating and scratching defender that Liverpool has had in many years, laughs out loud with Sadio Mané (Bambali, Senegal, 1992), the most circumspect attacker in world football. “You are going to win the first Ballon d’Or after the Messi era,” he tells her. “Would you trade it for the Africa Cup you won in February?” “I don’t change the Ballon d’Or for the African Cup,” Mané replies, shaking his crest punk that adorns his skull since time immemorial. “And the Champions in exchange for a Ballon d’Or?” “Nor,” says the harsh Senegalese. “If they give Benzema the Ballon d’Or and I keep the Champions League, I’ll sign it wherever they want. But I would prefer to keep the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or!”
Liverpool’s training complex in Kirkdale was the destination of a pilgrimage of footballers, media, club veterans, coaches and carriers this Wednesday at noon. The crowd clumsily circulated through the corridors of the majestic central building in the midst of the agitation that they produce in the clubs on the eve of the Champions League final (they play this Saturday against Madrid, at 9:00 p.m.). But Mané is different. After his meeting with his friend Carra he recovers the immutable air of someone who has been seen in much tighter situations and elegantly slips between the microphone and camera cables. “Let’s go to the gym, we’ll be calmer,” she says. He opens the door and there, doing exercises against a window, Thiago Alcántara is seen. The Spaniard takes a break from his Achilles tendon recovery routine — he’s running against the clock, he acknowledges, but he’s optimistic — and his eyes light up when he sees the compact figure of the formidable attacker, who sits on a weight bench chatting .
Ask. Sometimes players need to prove things to themselves. What did you prove to yourself by winning the African Cup?
Response. That I love soccer. I want to play as long as possible. And meanwhile I want to win all the titles I can: Champions, Premier, African Cups and World Cups. I want to prove to myself that I will be ready to behave like a professional who tries to be the best in every game, someone who helps his team to improve and who is a better player every time.
P. You became the best player in Africa by beating Salah’s Egypt in the African Cup final and then knocking them out of the World Cup in Qatar. What does this mean for someone who was born in Bambali, a small town in Senegal, a country with no football tradition?
R. It has not been easy. Where I come from is far, far away. Getting here has been very special for me. This is a dream. I am very happy to have been able to give this to my team and it is something that makes me feel very motivated. Perhaps winning the Champions League is not as difficult as becoming a professional player leaving Bambali.
P. How do you approach this Champions League final with Madrid? Do they keep the score to zero or do they keep in mind what happened in the 2018 kyiv final, where their goalkeeper gave Benzema a goal and Ramos broke Salah’s shoulder?
R. That ending is out of my mind. They deserved to win. We did our best and if we didn’t win it wasn’t the end of the world either. For us it is something surpassed. Four years have passed and things have changed. Now we have more experience, more quality, and if we had to play that game again we wouldn’t do things the same way. I think that in 2018 we entered the game better than Madrid. But this game is won by the team that scores the most goals and we have to be realistic: they were more decisive and played very well. How can they not play well if they are one of the best teams in the world? Now we are more prepared. We know what awaits us. And we know it will be very difficult. But if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
P. Salah said this was a rematch.
R. Not for me. Revenge is too big a word. This is just a completely different match. An opportunity to give the best of ourselves.
P. Liverpool is the most energetic team in recent years: pressing, unchecking towards the ball or space. Do you play like this because Klopp has trained you for that or is your body asking for it?
R. We move around a lot because it’s in our DNA. Not just for pressure. We train mixes of repeating breakout moves to make sure they play out in matches, and we vary them over time. If you don’t constantly uncheck yourself and if you don’t try to make these unchecks surprising, you don’t complicate life for rivals, especially when they wait for you behind.
P. The last goal he scored in the Premier was caused by a heel pass from Thiago that no one expected. Did he stop to think about it or did he run before thinking?
R. I did it because I know Thiago, I know he has the quality to give me advantages. The unchecks are made depending on the teammates. There are colleagues who make things easy for you. When I saw that the ball was going towards Thiago, I already thought about attacking the space. I made the goal thanks to him.
My job is to move, not to move to get the ball. We move to make things easier for our colleagues
P. And if Thiago, instead of passing the ball with a heel, had played it facing the midfielder, which would have been the most natural?
P. My job is to move, not to move to get the ball. We move to make things easier for our colleagues. If we don’t all move, the play has less clarity because we are running out of space. We move to help each other pass the ball better, assist more accurately and score more goals. That’s the team game.
P. Do you attack spaces because you have a hunter’s instinct?
R. I appreciate the compliment because I’m just trying to be a good hunter.
P. Klopp has moved him from the far left to the tip of the attack. To what does he attribute that serenity with which he plays the narrower the corridors through which he has to move? Many players get overwhelmed like this.
R. I am a shooter who can play anywhere on the field. That is not a problem. But I am a finisher. And I’m happy playing on the left, on the right or in the middle, as long as it helps the team like that.
P. How do you feel that you reach the goal better, behind the central defenders or looking for contact?
R. It depends on how the ball comes to you. Sometimes you need to fight him to win over the defender in a contact action and other times it’s better to wait to surprise him behind his back. As a striker I prefer to escape to the mark. But that is not always possible, so if you have to crash, you crash because the objective is to score goals.
P. Do you, the unmarking train it or do you feel it in the stomach?
R. Sometimes, you make a diagonal movement, you win your back to the defenders, you are left alone in front of the goalkeeper, you score, and you don’t know how you got to score that goal. If you think about repeating it, you don’t get it. In every goal you follow your instinct.
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