POLOKWANE, South Africa (Reuters) - Sadio Mane said he battled to deal with an enormous burden of expectation placed on his shoulders, but still delivered another virtuoso performance on Friday to lead Senegal to the World Cup for only the second time ever.
"It was not easy but I had to keep pushing. It wasn't easy for me, there was too much pressure on me but that has become normal," Mane said after the 2-0 away win over South Africa ensured progress to next year's finals in Russia.
"It was important to be able make a difference," added the 25-year-old after playing a decisive role in both goals.
The first was a sublime pass behind the South Africa defence to put Diafra Sakho through to side foot the ball home.
"I saw three defenders all in a line and I couldn't pull the ball back, so I just put it through the middle of them because I knew Diafra Sakho would be racing onto the ball. We play well together every time we are in the national team," the Liverpool winger said.
Mane was also instrumental in the second goal, which was turned into the home team's net by their own defender Thamsanqa Mkhize.
"Our coach wasn't happy even though we were 2-0 up at half-time. He warned us it would be difficult to keep the lead. But we knew we had just 45 minutes to hold on for the World Cup.
"It's a big dream for all of us to play at the World Cup. We are going to represent all of Africa and go there as an African team. We will try to give our best for the whole continent," Mane added.
Mane's role as talisman for the team has become increasingly evident throughout the qualifying campaign and there was a collective gasp of anguish when he injured a hamstring in last month's in the 2-0 away win over Cape Verde.
An initial prognosis of six weeks on the sidelines meant he would miss the last two crucial qualifiers -- both against South Africa -- where Senegal needed two points to make sure of advancing while their opponents needed to win both matches to have any hope of progressing themselves.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp was dismissive when Senegal included the still injured Mane in their squad for the fixtures. However, the intuition of head coach Aliou Cisse proved correct when Mane made a quicker-than-expected recovery and was back in Premier League action last weekend – to the collective relief, and then later joy, of Senegalese supporters.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Christian Radnedge)