Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane light it up, again: Africans Abroad review
Rarely a week goes by without either Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah making headlines in European football, and this weekend both played their parts as Liverpool secured a potentially decisive victory in the English Premier League title race.
However, there were other key African protagonists across Europe's major leagues, with LOSC Lille's Nicolas Pepe serving a reminder as to why he's set to be the primary transfer target of a series of high-profile clubs this summer.
The Sadio and Mo Show
At Anfield, the pressure had been ramped up on Jurgen Klopp's Reds ahead of their Sunday afternoon showdown with Chelsea.
Manchester City's victory over Wilfried Zaha's Crystal Palace earlier in the day meant that Liverpool began the match one point behind Pep Guardiola's team.
It was impossible to ignore parallels with their home game against Chelsea in 2014, when Steven Gerrard's infamous slip cost Liverpool the initiative in the title race and opened the door for City.
The 30-year anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster -- which was commemorated by a minute's silence ahead of the match -- and the recent passing of Liverpool legend Tommy Smith made for a particularly emotional encounter at Anfield, a stadium increasingly enveloped by a sense of destiny as the season wears on.
Liverpool haven't been beyond wobbles during Klopp's tenure, and they rode their luck at times against Chelsea, with Eden Hazard going close on several occasions after scintillating runs that left Joel Matip chasing shadows.
However, Mane and Salah give this Liverpool side a clinical edge, and two goals in three second-half minutes from the Reds' African superstars secured all three points on a critical weekend in this compelling championship tussle.
It was the attacker's 12th goal in 16 matches, and he continues to embolden his reputation as one of the game's genuinely elite big-game players.
Then, 142 seconds later, with Chelsea still rattled, Salah took the contest beyond the visitors with a sensational effort.
Last weekend, against Southampton, the Egyptian forward ended his eight-match goalless stretch to give the visitors the lead at St. Mary's Stadium.
Here, he firmly signalled his return to form in some style, bagging his 19th league goal of the season as Liverpool took a giant step towards a 19th English title.
The 26-year-old controlled a long ball from Virgil van Dijk with a deft left-footed touch before stepping inside Emerson, taking momentary aim, and slamming a thunderous strike beyond Kepa.
Anfield stood up to celebrate their favourite son; despite the challenges that lie ahead, few in the city will doubt the championship is Merseyside-bound.
"As soon as he hit it I think everyone knew that it was in," Liverpool's Andy Robertson said. "The place went wild.
"Fair play to Mo," the Scot continued, before referring to a video which emerged in midweek, of Chelsea fans singing derogatory chants about Salah ahead of Thursday's UEFA Europa League game against Slavia Prague.
"A bit of stuff went on in midweek and I suppose that was the perfect way to shut them up."
Salah's magnificent effort was his 66th in all competitions since the start of last season -- no Premier League player has more -- and he appears primed to add substantial silverware to his eye-catching goal haul.
Wins for both keep the North London duo among the Champions League places, with Spurs on 67 points with five games to go, and Arsenal one behind in fourth.
Over in Ligue 1, Nicolas Pepe was arguably the outstanding performer during a memorable weekend for African talents in the French top flight.
The wideman was influential last term in helping Lille beat the drop, but even after those heroics few could have anticipated the impact he'd have this term.
Heading into Sunday's bout against league-leaders Paris Saint-Germain, Les Dogues, up in second after a campaign that's surpassed any expectations, knew they could postpone the visitors' title celebrations for a few days more with a win.
No one could have foreseen Lille's rampant victory, as Pepe found the net in a 5-1 humiliation for the 10-man champions.
The Ivorian's 51st-minute effort was his 19th of the season; he's the second highest scorer in the division after Kylian Mbappe, and has been responsible for 35 percent of Lille's goals.
His Ivory Coast compatriot Jonathan Bamba also netted for the hosts, who may now have to start making plans for a post-Pepe future.
Arsenal appear favourites to sign the winger, although Manchester United, PSG, and Bayern Munich are also understood to be competing for his signature.
As well as his goal, Pepe also contributed two assists, meaning he's been involved in 30 Ligue 1 goals so far this term (19 goals and 11 assists).
For context, the last player who had a direct hand in more than 30 goals for LOSC in a single top flight season was one Eden Hazard.
Malagasy forward Ludovic Ajorque, who has been targeted for a maiden Madagascar call-up ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, netted twice for Strasbourg in their 3-3 draw against Guingamp, while Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy delivered a series of heroic stops as Stade de Reims held AS Monaco 0-0 away.
Ajorque wasn't the only African talent to net twice this weekend, as Kalidou Koulibaly was Napoli's unlikely hero with a brace as the Partenopei defeated Chievo 3-1 away in Serie A.
Centre-back Koulibaly, like Salah, will have been delighted to have made headlines for footballing reasons after being subjected to alleged racist abuse in recent weeks.
His goals mean Juventus, like PSG, must now wait for their inevitable coronation.
Over in Spain, Samuel Chukwueze served a reminder as to why he could yet be Nigeria's x-factor at this summer's Nations Cup.
The wonderkid didn't feature in the Super Eagles' final qualifier against the Seychelles in March, and was instead sent to play with the under-23 team, but he scored his fifth league goal of the season on Sunday as Villarreal dispatched Girona 1-0.
With competition for the wide berths particularly fierce, could he give Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr a difficult decision to make ahead of the trip to Egypt in June.
The three points ended Villarreal's three-game winless streak, taking them two points clear of the relegation zone.