I’M penning this note on Boxing Day 2016. George Michael is dead. Rick Parfitt is dead. And Bobby Firmino’s been busted on a DUI. To put a top hat on it all, there’s no game today.
It feels like the end of days.
It’s been over a fortnight since Anfield was last graced by the Reds and — if truth be told — we haven’t bore witness to a great performance on home soil since the defenestration of cocky Watford on November 6.
Shorn of the magic of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool have simply lacked consistency. Yes, there have been performances, and periods within matches, but the ruthlessness hasn’t quite been there.
Imperious at Bournemouth for 70 minutes, and then a disaster. Awkward at Anfield, even in victory, versus Sunderland, and then tepid at home to a poor West Ham side allowed to leave with a point.
The better news is that a normal service was resumed at Middlesborough’s Riverside Stadium 12 days ago. The second half showing was as good as Liverpool have produced in what remains emphatically a ‘good season’, to date.
That the time is now passing for simply looking the part, was apparent in the afterglow of last Monday’s derby win at Goodison. Liverpool were decent, if not merciless, at Everton, but the belief that there was still something for them in the dying embers of that game will serve them in very good stead.
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The Blues’ boss Ronald Koeman felt his mob were unlucky in late defeat. The weren’t, but then it has always felt like fate has intervened in any side winning any game with single digit figures left on the clock. No matter that territorial dominance, and goal chances were all with the one team. The late winner will always leave the arena as relieved as he is joyous. As conscious of going there but for the grace of God as of feeling an entirely deserving victor.
Jürgen Klopp will not have allowed his boys to have tarried too long on such insecure sidetracking. The game, lads, he will have reminded, lasts 90-odd minutes. The late winner is no more of an imposter than a goal in the 22nd minute or the 63rd. Take the win, lads. Own the win lads.
How big a win Goodison represented for the Liverpool players only time will tell. What we know already is that it was massive for the supporters. When Sadio Mane slammed it home on 94 minutes, that corner of their ground where the Bullens meets the Park end, where red meets blue, simply went off. We were a sea of sprawling limbs. Swimming against and at once into, invisible human currents. Stuff was getting hurled. Fires were getting lit. It was like a controlled joyous panic.
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Whatever happens next, Goodison 2016-17 will live long in the memory. We now have it in the bank. I think the feeling will serve us well for the rest of the season.
The power that goal gave to the fans may well be returned to the team when it needs it most. Ours is a folk that doesn’t tend to forget. Winning at their home, winning in that way. It’s not a thing you take for granted. It’s not a debt of gratitue you don’t honour.
We can hope that the full might of a re-energised Liverpool crowd will not be required to see off Stoke, though it would be good to stay well ahead of complacency. It is hard not to view the home fixtures against Stoke and Manchester City as a double header.
With one thing or another the Reds have spent the majority of this season on the road so far — 10 played away to just seven at home. Back-to-back Anfield wins might convince the last few remaining doubters that Liverpool will remain in title contention until Spring.
Klopp will have one eye on the Sunderland game, just 46 hours after City, and feel that he is going to have to walk a selection tightrope with stretched-looking resources.
Let’s start with the defence: Mignolet looks set fine. Incredible but true. He’s the first pick. Of the back four, Joel Matip — still struggling with an ankle injury — has looked the best defender but Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan have performed admirably without him. Matip is not thought to be far away, so three players sharing two central defensive berths shoulnd’t cause much concern.
Full back is trickier to call. Nathaniel Clyne is naturally very fit, and has unsurpisingly racked up the most minutes of our defensive players this seasson. He will probably not get a rest until the FA Cup game with Plymouth on January 8.
James Milner has a few years on Clyne, though, and Klopp may be tempted to rest him (possibly for Sunderland) and give Alberto Moreno some pitch time.
In central midfield, Emre Can will most probably be called upon to relieve the first legs to tire out of what seems now to be a first-choice triumvirate of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana. Given that Klopp may be targeting playing the main three against Man City, it might mean starts for Emre either side of that game — against Stoke and Sunderland.
The update from Klopp’s pre-Stoke press conference was that Coutinho — crocked with ankle ligament damage — looks unlikely to feature over the holiday programme. With the mini-break of the FA Cup weekend looming it may be prudent to get Phil 100 per cent right and aim to bring him back in for the League Cup semi-final at Southampton on January 11.
Mane, by contrast, is fit and definitely firing. Mindful that he will be lost to Africa Cup of Nations duties post January 2, his manager may be tempted to run him into the ground over the course of the next seven days. Let his inevitable fatigue be Senegal’s problem. Harsh, but tough shit. Needs must.
That leaves us with just two first 11 places to talk about. Bobby Firmino has been a star this season, but there has been a nagging suspicion that he’s been waning for a month or so now. A slight injury a factor but also he simply has too many miles on the clock. Klopp will be aware of this and I expect him to aim to rest Firmino for one of the three imminent games. My bet would be that he’ll be planning to bench him for the Sunderland match.
With five goals in six games, Divock Origi is entitled to take his selection for granted. He will undoubtedly start against Stoke, but Daniel Sturridge will again get minutes and there’s every chance he makes a compelling case for taking Origi’s place for the City game.
I’ll never tire of being excited at the prospect of seeing Sturridge back in the fold. He hinted at the quality he can bring in the Everton match, and we will all be hoping (praying) that he can be like that proverbial ‘new signing’ for us in January.
This Liverpool is blessed with five outstanding attacking talents. Give us any four from five fit at any given time and we’ll be there or thereabouts.
The ready Reds to shoot down Stoke: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Firmino, Mane, Origi.
Kick-off: 5.15pm (Live on Sky Sports 1).
Last season: Liverpool 4 Stoke City 1
Referee: Michael Oliver
Odds: Liverpool 1-3, Stoke City 10-1, Draw 5-1.