André Breitenreiter’s Hannover side features on Saturday at the Allianz Arena against a Bayern Munich side that will be hungry to avenge their first league loss under Jupp Heynckes at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Despite missing world-class injured stars such as Manuel Neuer, Thiago, David Alaba and possibly one or both of the famed ‘Robbery’ duo (Arjen Robben,Franck Ribery), the Bavarians will still field a starting XI that Breitenreiter can only dream of employing. But upstart Hannover do have one player who would proudly fit into that Bayern lineup, their dominating, under-recognized central defender, Salif Sané .
Sané 27, is having the high quality, breakout season for the 96ers that any Bayern player would be proud to claim. He has been selected as Man of the Match in six of the 12 league matches he’s played, twice as many awards as any other Bundesliga player not named Arturo Vidal, who has been cited as MOTM in four Bayern matches this season. The lanky Hannover man ranks second only to Vidal in the Whoscored.com player ratings through 13 matchdays by .01 of a point, while ranking above the third hightest rated Bundesliga-er, famed striker Robert Lewandowski, and well-recognized players such as Nuri Sahin and Naby Keita, who currently rank fourth and fifth (Sané is ranked as the 9th best Bundesliga player by Squawka.com). Sané’s performance in Hannover’s 1-1 draw with VfB Stuttgart last week, which included winning an astonishing 81% of his duels and having his one shot hit the woodwork, was sufficient to be named to the UEFA Team of the Week. Yet we don’t really know this defender whose caliber of play has so influenced his club’s surprising success.
Why is Sané not recognized more? Much is due to circumstance. He came to Hannover the season after they club had its greatest international run, making the knockout phase of the Europa League before being eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by Atletico Madrid by a 4-2 aggregate margin. Hannover were involved in another Europa League adventure in the defender’s first season at the club, but it ended earlier in the knockout stage with a loss to unheralded Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. Hannover Coach Mirko Slomka had already been fired in December, as he couldn’t find good form in away matches for the 96ers, and Sané played 13 matches for the reserve side as his career in the north German city would include playing under five more Die Roten coaches before Breitenreiter arrived last season and got the club promoted back to the Bundesliga from the second division.
Thus Sané a central defender on a bad club that hadn’t won the Bundesliga for 60 years or the Pokal for 25, has received little notoriety in his career. Born in France, he played for Bordeaux and AS Nancy before coming to Hannover in the summer of 2013 for a bargain fee of only two million euros. He played 18 matches for the first squad in his first Bundesliga season, and split his time between the first team and Hannover’s Regionalliga Nord reserve side in his second. It wasn’t until 2015/2016 that Sané became a regular for Hannover’s senior squad, featuring in 31 league fixtures, but that was the season that ended in relegation, so Sané’s next season was spent in the relative obscurity of the 2.Bundesliga. And even though the rugged defender was first capped in 2013 by Senegal, he has only played in seven international matches for a national team that had been absent from the World Cup since 2002 and has only made the knockout stage of the Africa Cup of Nations once, this year, since 2006.
So although he’s been off the radar of most fans, times are changing for Sané, and you’ll be hearing his name more frequently as he establishes himself as an elite defender. Senegal qualified for next summer’s Russia World Cup, and both he and his older brother, Lamine Sané, a central defender at Werder Bremen with 25 international caps, will have high hopes of making Senegal’s final World Cup squad and featuring on the world’s biggest stage.
And both should, as both are Bundesliga regulars. Salif presents an especially strong case for a seat on Senegal’s plane to Russia, as he’s simply dominating the Germany’s top division defensively. In addition to his six MOTM awards, he leads the league in aerials won, with an average of 6.3 per game, almost a full aerial more than the Bundesliga’s second strongest-player in the air, Frankfurt’s Sebastien Haller. Sané also leads the league in clearances, with an average of 8.3 per game, a full 2 clearances per match more than runnerup Philipp Lienhart of SC Freiburg (Lamine ranks firth in the league).
Additionally, Salif Sané is fourth in the league in blocked shots, averaging 1.1 per match in a category led by Hamburg’s Greek bulldog, Kyriakos Papadopoulos. The Senegalese international is passing at a respectable 80% success rate, has scored one goal on twelve shots (five on target, nine goals for the 96ers in 106 matches) and has only drawn two yellow cards despite being in the midst of so much action. His durability has been outstanding, as the Hannover man has played every minute of every league match after missing the season opener due to suspension. It’s obvious that Breitenreiter relies on Sane — he is tied for the club lead in league minutes played thus far with goalkeeper Philipp Tschauner, Matthias Ostrzolek and Waldemar Anton. According to whoscored.com, Sané has no marked weaknesses as a player.
And Hannover are aware of that. Sané has a contract with the club running through 2020 that was just negotiated barely a year ago, but he also has an escape clause that goes into effect in 2018 (10 million euro trigger for EPL or Chinese buyers, less for Bundesliga clubs) that Hannover want to renegotiate. There were rumors this past summer that Borussia Mönchengladbach were looking hard at the 6’4″ backliner as a replacement for Andreas Christensen, and 1.FC Koln as well as VfL Wolfsburg had shown interest, when the 96ers were relegated, in acquiring the Senegalese international, but Sané stayed loyal to his club. This week representatives of London side Tottenham Hotspur were in the stands for a Hannover practice session. Hannover CEO Martin Kind, wants to again extend Sané’s contract as soon as possible, with no buyout clause.
Coach Breitenreiter considers his man “one of the league’s best centerbacks.” After a brilliant start to the season, the 96ers have been slower to pick up points, but are 2-2-2 in their last six matches and hold 10th place. There are reasonable, if challenging, opportunities to pick up points in the 96ers final three matches before Winterpause against Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen — with two of the three final contests at Die Roten’s HDI-Arena home. With some exciting young attacking talents aboard and a defense ranked in the top third of the league, Hannover fans can look forward to brighter days and more recognition for the blossoming talents of their dynamic central defender, Salif Sané.