The next round of the 2016/17 Premier League season will see Liverpool play away to champions Leicester City, who currently sit just one point above the relegation zone.
Empathy for Leicester
Liverpool know, all too well, what it feels like to have a team completely and utterly lose their mojo with a departure of one player. In the summer of 2014, the Reds lost Luis Suarez, as the brilliant Uruguayan felt he had outgrown the Liverpool team (and manager) and fulfilled his ultimate ambition to play for Barcelona. It has been said before, but saying it again won’t make it any less true – he went to the best team in the world, and improved it.
Liverpool on the other hand were left gutted. They made numerous attempts to find a suitable replacement but to no avail. In the end, it was Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli who arrived to complement the striking department then consisting of Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini. Well, we all know how that went.
Fast forward two and a half years, and Leicester City now find themselves in a fairly similar situation. Despite Jamie Vardy being their star striker in the title-winning 2015/16 and Riyad Mahrez winning the PFA Player of the Year award, as well as the fact that they have managed to keep them both at the club, the departure of N’golo Kante seems to have done damage beyond repair. Wilfred Ndidi and Daniel Amartey don’t seem able to fill the void created by the loss of the French defensive midfielder, whose presence in the team seems to have been the glue that held everything together. Without him there to recycle the ball quickly, the creative abilities of Mahrez and the striking force of Vardy are seriously diminished. Without his protection, the centre-back duo of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are being constantly exposed and all their individual weaknesses are suddenly laid bare.
Though Leicester have performed unexpectedly well in the Champions League and made progress to the knockout stages, their exploits in the Premier League this season leave in them in a position where they face a hard fight against relegation – the very next season after deservedly winning the title.
A different situation
On the other hand, Liverpool are enjoying a much better season compared to 2015/16, at least when the Premier League is concerned. Having no European football to distract them, they have been near or on the top of the table throughout the campaign – circumstances to an extent similar to those of Leicester last season.
After a rather worrying winter slump that saw them bow out of both domestic cups, and during which they were hit hard by injuries, illnesses, ACON, FIFA irresponsibility and congested schedule, the Reds seem to have gone over the bump as they thoroughly thrashed Spurs at Anfield on February 11th. The team again seems a formidable unit to play against, with Mane on fire, Coutinho, Firmino, Henderson, Clyne and Matip slowly but steadily rediscovering their form, and all the unnoticed work of Georginio Wijnaldum getting more credit by the game. It was also a standout performance by Simon Mignolet in goal.
However, it was just that one game that the Reds looked and played like we want them to. Once more, the word of the day (or the season, or decade if you will) is – consistency. They now have to make sure they confirm the strong belief among the Anfield faithful that the good performance against Chelsea was a glimpse of form returning, before the one at Hull acted like the last shred of the crisis, and then the one against Spurs eventually told us that Liverpool are back. We now need to feel that it did not lie.
Jurgen Klopp has used the current FA Cup-inspired mini-break in league fixtures to take his players to La Manga, Spain, for some warm-weather training. Such excursions have been known to bring success to Klopp-managed teams before, so let’s hope that will again be the case.
Team news and views
Daniel Sturridge returned to Melwood ahead of schedule due to illness, while both Dejan Lovren and Marko Grujic are close to returning to fitness. All three of them should be ready for full training with the team as soon as they get back, but it’s not to be expected the manager will use the young Serbian midfielder just yet, with the length of his absence in mind as well as the critical moment of the Premier League campaign.
It will be interesting to see what this break will have done with James Milner. The vice-captain looked rather tired in the last several games, as his hard work to adapt to a new position through the course of the season started taking toll. Be that as it may, Alberto Moreno performed well recently, and should be ready to step in if at any point the manager sees fit to give Milner a rest.
Lovren, as the only currently side-lined member of Liverpool’s arguably best XI, is probably the biggest question-mark for the trip to King Power Stadium. If he’s deemed unavailable, it will pose an interesting dilemma for Klopp to decide on whether to trust Lucas Leiva or Ragnar Klavan to partner Joel Matip at the back.
If nothing unexpected happens, it’s hard to imagine the manager making any changes in midfield or attack, and having stuck with Mignolet after questionable outings against Chelsea and Hull, he’s unlikely to change his mind now, since the Belgian fully repaid his trust with a great performance against Spurs.
Another thing very likely to remain the same is the 4-3-3 formation Klopp has been employing this entire season.
The stakes are high, the points are vital
Whatever the German decides to do, whatever team he sends out at the King Power Stadium, one thing is certain: Liverpool need to win this game. They need the three points to maintain their top-four credentials, as well as to give the three points previously won against Spurs more significance.
They need to establish another run of games won to be able to exploit any crisis that their rivals could potentially fall into, after Arsenal got thrashed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Manchester City losing Gabriel Jesus for a long time so soon after his arrival. Manchester United on the other hand have improved their form and are getting the results they want, but they are still very much in all four competitions and the depth of their squad is likely to be thoroughly tested very soon.
But as most managers – Klopp not least – have a habit of saying, Liverpool must look to their own road. And on that road, the next obstacle is the team bearing the crest of the reigning Premier League champions, Leicester City.