Manchester United target Sadio Mane out of form at Southampton
Sadio Mane was at the peak of his powers when Southampton impressively swept Swansea aside 3-1 at St Mary's on Sept. 26. The Senegalese forward has dipped from that scintillating form, though, and needs to get back on track as Ronald Koeman's men make the return trip to South Wales on Saturday.
Mane's goal in a surprisingly comfortable victory against Swansea was one of five in a dazzling five-match spell which left the Southampton hierarchy fearing a big-money January bid from Manchester United for their then-star performer.
But the anticipated offer from Old Trafford never materialised and Mane's recent statistics provide an indicator as to why Louis van Gaal may have gone cold on the idea of raiding the south coast yet again, having prised Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin away in recent transfer windows.
Since netting a crucial equaliser in Southampton's 1-1 draw at Liverpool on Oct. 25, Mane has gone 15 Premier League matches without getting his name on the scoresheet, missing a hatful of good opportunities in the process.
His supply line to his teammates has also begun to run dry and it would not have been a difficult decision by manager Koeman to sacrifice the former Red Bull Salzburg star when Victor Wanyama was sent off for the third time this season in the 1-0 win at home to West Ham.
Koeman was critical of Mane for holding on to the ball for too long in the 2-1 FA Cup defeat at home to Crystal Palace on Jan. 9, a week after being dropped from the Dutchman's starting lineup for missing a prematch team meeting ahead of the 1-0 defeat at Norwich.
Where he was once the heartbeat of Southampton's attack, Mane's only meaningful contribution in recent weeks has been to use his blistering speed to quickly turn defence into attack as Koeman has looked to hit opponents on the break.
Despite rumours of Manchester City planning for Pep Guardiola's impending arrival by rivalling United for Mane's signature, he has done little of late to justify Southampton's £30 million price tag.
Maybe the constant speculation over his future has begun to affect the African -- who has made it clear in private he wants to move in the summer -- but whether he can get back to his best between now and mid-May will go a long way to determining his next destination.
Mane has all the raw attributes to shine at Old Trafford in a team crying out for some pace in the wide areas and when at his best, he provides more end product than City's frustratingly under-performing winger Jesus Navas.
But whether he has the right mentality for either Louis van Gaal or Guardiola is a debating point and convincing either Manchester giant to meet Southampton's substantial asking price will depend as much on his attitude as his application.
The arrival of £4m Charlie Austin from Queens Park Rangers in January and the consistency of Shane Long means Mane's place should no longer be guaranteed, especially if Jay Rodriguez can get somewhere near to full fitness before the end of the season.
After a couple of impressive cameos from the substitutes' bench -- most notably scoring a debut winner at Manchester United last month -- Austin is pushing for his first Southampton start and Mane could well find himself on the sidelines.
Koeman has been loyal to Mane so far, the Carrow Road time-keeping incident apart, and is likely to keep faith with him on Saturday, but if his recent drought continues against a Swansea side just four points above the relegation zone, the manager's patience may finally run out.
Alex Crook is a national newspaper journalist, commentator and author. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook