THIS is going to be a slog. I can’t quite remember when we last had to dog a season out quite like this. There’s lots to play for but the gods are moving against us.
It’s tempting to pre-mitigate failure by noting that we’re having to stumble through the bones of this campaign without our three best-ish players. Neither captain Jordan Henderson, star of recent months Adam Lallana nor undisputed man of the season, Sadio Mane, are likely to play a handful of games between them during what remains of this term.
And yet. Philippe Coutinho is showing signs of life. A bit poorly this week, granted but his recent displays have seen him in much improved fettle. He is again hinting at form that might pique Barcelona’s interest come the summer. He was outstanding in scoring and dismantling Everton last Saturday. Then, despite being reduced to an afflicted vomiting wreck on Wednesday night, he still had enough to get on the score sheet again. A fit Coutinho runs games and scores goals. Cross everything that he makes the cut for Stoke.
His best mate Bobby Firmino remains in cruise mode. He is not the running, scoring machine of last autumn but he always finds a way to contribute significantly. His resilience, his indefatigability, will be sorely needed in this run-in.
Then there’s Divock Origi. The young Belge, a revelation during the last third of 2015-16, has had largely a forgettable season, but like Firmino, he will always look to have the last word.
Quietly effective in his last two outings, with a goal in each, he has now hit double figures for the second season running. Origi, written off by many as recently as last month will yet have his say.
Liverpool might be still in contention for the league title had Origi and fellow back-up striker Daniel Sturridge been able to function during a demanding winter that saw Coutinho absent with injury and Mane excused for AFCON duty.
Danny and Divock have world class ceilings. They have both proved themselves capable of achieving a devastating level. But when the chips were down — in December and January — the pair were but ghosts. Effigies of themselves. To say they owe us is understatement.
Tantalisingly then, Divock is back in business just as Sturridge is also re-emerging from a hiatus. Of course Daniel still has everything to prove, but it’s inescapable that his return to fitness feels more than timely.
Almost exactly a year ago, Jürgen Klopp threw the kids in during the league run-in, with the grown ups preserved for that exciting stretch in the Europa League. In the main, the plan worked. Nearly. The first team progressed to a European final, while a mix of youth and experience continued to pick up points in the Premier League.
Last year we were looking for big performances from Sheyi Ojo, Danny Ward, Jordon Ibe, Brad Smith, Kevin Stewart and Connor Randall. Now it looks like we may be asking for even more from 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold and 17-year-old Ben Woodburn.
It will undoubtedly be a mess of a game in the Potteries. It almost always is. The Reds are in the box seat for that top four finish but surely will need at least four points from these imminent aways at Stoke and West Brom if they are to stay there. Given all prevailing winds, that suddenly looks a big ask.
This mini-phase will be an interesting test of the manager. He is likely without virtually all of his key men, and facing the kind of fixtures in which even full-strength Liverpool sides rarely prosper.
I think Klopp will quietly relish this challenge. Sometimes a manager’s job and focus can become very simple. Just convince a group of young men that they are good enough to win a football match. Nothing less, nothing more. Such luxuries as tactical selections are barely open to him.
The patched up will need sending out with a pride and a hunger that is enough to take them to a level beyond the sum of their collective parts. This is a cup final of sorts. Let the Britannia Stadium, on what should be a gloriously sunny spring afternoon, be this Liverpool 11’s Wembley.
The anyone’s guess 11: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lucas, Can, Wijnaldum; Firmino, Woodburn, Origi.
Last Match: Liverpool 4 Stoke City 1
Referee: Mike Dean
Odds: Stoke City 16-5, Draw 11-4, Liverpool 1-1