Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are Africa’s two representatives on the Fifa Ballon d’Or shortlist, but which of the two superstars has a stronger case for the big prize?
For six odd months last season, Liverpool were firmly in the title race.
Hopes had been lifted that perhaps it would be the year the Merseyside club finally ended their long wait for the title.
It may be a bit too simplistic, but it’d be hard to argue that Sadio Mane didn’t play a huge role in lifting the perennial underachievers to title contenders.
The wideman was a revelation at Anfield in his debut season, delivering performances right out of the top drawer.
The forward’s exemplary outing against Arsenal in the seven-goal thriller was a debut to remember and served as a prelude to what was to come over the course of the season.
Question marks had been raised whether the Senegal international was going to keep delivering solid performances after making the jump to a bigger club, but he silenced those doubters with his show of consistency.
His return of 13 league goals saw him end the season as joint-top scorer alongside fellow Ballon d’Or nominee Philippe Coutinho (having played four games fewer), and having directly had a hand in five goals, he was only two assists behind the Brazilian, who had seven.
However, it’s the impact of the Senegal international in Jurgen Klopp’s tactical scheme which lays bare his importance to the Reds.
It’s no coincidence that his absence at the Africa Cup of Nations last season led to an alarming drop in form that saw the Merseyside giants drop out of the title race and battle to end in the top four.
Klopp’s side score more goals with the former Southampton player in the side and tend to struggle without him.
He gives them that edge upfront, and Liverpool were a poorer side in his absence.
Mane offers goals, assists, and that extra spark of lightening to light up a game while staying diligent when his team doesn’t have the ball.
The rapid attacker was head and shoulders above the rest in Klopp’s side.
Not winning a trophy will surely deny Mane the prospect of a genuine tilt at the Ballon d’Or, which is a bit unfair to the West African.
The forward’s impact in only his first year at Anfield proved his importance to the side and the simple fact that he’s surpassed Coutinho (who was obsessively chased by Barcelona) as the side’s talisman shows what a gem he is.
There’s no doubt who Africa’s best bet for the Ballon d’Or is!
It is a sign of the times we live in that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he of Borussia Dortmund and Gabon, does not have a realistic shot at being named Fifa Ballon d’Or.
The scorched earth plundering of Cristiano Ronaldo and the imperturbable, gliding grace of Lionel Messi have utterly laid waste to the surrounding landscape, and so even good looks mediocre, great looks menial, and excellent seems mundane.
He may not win the gong itself, but Aubameyang is one of only two Africans named in the shortlist of 30 and, all things considered, the best (outside) bet for the continent.
A bald look at the numbers bears this out.
Last season, the Gabon international scored 40 goals in 46 appearances for BVB in all competitions, in the process beating Pole Robert Lewandowski to the prize of German top goalscorer, even as Bayern Munich ran away with the title.
He has begun this season in similar vein, netting 13 in 11 games.
These are remarkable numbers; in any other era, he would be a given in a discussion of the world’s best footballer. George Weah, Africa’s sole winner of the grandest individual prize in the game to date, scored less than 10 league goals in 1997!
As it is, we have become inured to genius, filled no more with wonder at the art that is goalscoring, but with a complacent ennui.
Even measured against his own standards and antecedent, the past year has represented a level of prolificacy never before seen from Aubameyang.
Compare with the aforementioned Mane, and by the numbers (cold, unbiased parameter that it is) it is almost a different sport.
The Senegal international is undoubtedly one of the best players in the Premier League, and his effect on Liverpool is nothing short of transformative. However, 13 in 29 last season, and three in nine this term is unlikely to register on the Richter Scale, albeit with the caveats that he is not an out-and-out centre forward, and that Liverpool spread the goals around.
It makes for a more rounded attacking approach, but also takes away the sort of burden of responsibility that Aubameyang bears at Dortmund.
He is the one through whom every attack is funnelled, the one on whom the success or failure of his side most immediately hinges.
This makes his production all the more impressive, and puts him on a pedestal with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, deciders rather than simply enablers.
He is simply playing in a different league to every active African forward, both literally, but more importantly, figuratively.