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Five Liverpool improvers who are beginning to impress

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Liverpool’s revival since Christmas week has seen the Reds’ season turn from a non-event into one where they are suddenly right in the chase for a top four finish, very well placed to win the FA Cup and possibly in with a shout for the Europa League. It’s a far cry from the mid-December misery which engulfed Anfield, when an early Champions League exit and a 3-0 hammering by Manchester United added salt to Liverpool fans’ gaping wounds from a season that, up to then, had delivered so little.

The upturn of form for Brendan Rodgers’ team since then has been helped in part by the return from injury of Daniel Sturridge, who despite being out for almost five months has looked as sharp as ever, although several players whose pre-Christmas performances drew no shortage of criticism are now showing signs that perhaps they do merit their place in the home dressing room at Anfield. Looking at five men who have improved considerably along with Liverpool’s fortunes, maybe it is no surprise that things are beginning to click for Rodgers and co.

 

Simon Mignolet

After a decent first season at Anfield, the opening months of Mignolet’s second year on Merseyside saw the Belgian called into question on quite a few occasions. While at times he was not helped by the feebleness of the defenders in front of him, some of Liverpool’s concessions were certainly down to goalkeeping errors. Any team pushing for success must have a dominant, authoritative man between the sticks, and unfortunately Mignolet did not fit those categories in autumn 2014. He flapped at crosses and set pieces, his positioning was off and far too many of his goal kicks and clearances were aimlessly booted into touch in a manner that a rugby out-half would love to achieve.

When he was dropped in favour of Brad Jones for the visit to Old Trafford in December, Mignolet could have been forgiven for thinking that his time in Liverpool may have been coming to an end. However, Jones’ misfortune in picking up an injury at Burnley on Boxing Day was to be his fellow netminder’s huge opportunity and the Belgian has not looked back since. He recently said in an interview that, during his displacement before Christmas, his fiancee advised him not to think too much about in-game decisions and, since returning to the team, Mignolet has looked much more commanding and assertive. The doubt-ridden number one of earlier this season is now an assured beacon of confidence and, in the vital wins over Tottenham and Crystal Palace last week, he was arguably the main reason why Liverpool collected three points instead of one at Anfield and don’t have an FA Cup fifth round replay on the horizon.

 

Mamadou Sakho

When you spend £15million on a central defender, you can rightfully expect him to be a commanding rock of comfort at the back. For a prolonged spell at the start of this season, Sakho was providing as much comfort to Liverpool fans as a knife-wielding maniac who had broken into your house. The supposed tower of physicality who had played so impressively for Paris Saint-Germain and France was instead a clumsy, oafish player who far too often failed to execute the basics of defending. Careless in possession and clueless when facing set pieces, he then committed a dismal error at West Ham in September when, with the ideal opportunity to clear his lines, he casually played the ball towards the middle of the field, where the Hammers gladly seized possession to put the seal on a 3-1 victory. After bailing from Anfield when dropped for the Merseyside derby a week later, surely the end was nigh for Sakho in a Liverpool shirt?

He came back into the side for the 2-2 draw with Arsenal three months later, with Martin Skrtel’s 97th-minute equaliser proving to be the turning point in Liverpool’s season. The Reds have kept five clean sheets in their eight Premier League matches since then and, to his credit, Sakho has been central to that new-found and overdue solidity. He can still be sloppy with the ball at his feet within 30 yards of his own goal, but how many times has the Frenchman put in a firm yet immaculately-timed challenge to halt an opposition attack? Remarkably, Liverpool have a higher win percentage this season with him in the team than with any other player, so perhaps the cries to dispense with his services have been premature. Unlikely as it seemed five months ago, he represents a far more assuring option in central defence than Dejan Lovren, who is stuck in the type of rut in which Sakho previously found himself.

 

Lazar Markovic

When analysing Liverpool’s nine purchases last summer, at the time it did not seem a very shrewd piece of business to lash out £20million on a 20-year-old Serbian winger who had a few impressive cameos for Benfica in the Europa League. Markovic’s early weeks at Anfield were not easy, with the youngster looking like a flashy bits-and-pieces player rather than a footballer of substance. He certainly didn’t seem to have the physicality to make it in the English game and, even for his tender years, he had a habit of taking the wrong option on the ball. The frightful moniker of Milan Jovanovic was beginning to be bandied about, a reference to another Serbian attacking midfielder who came to Liverpool in 2010 with a glowing reputation but soon left as one of the club’s biggest duds of modern times.

Since the turn of the year, Markovic has proven that he does have the talent and work ethic to succeed at Liverpool. His man of the match performance at Sunderland was capped by an early, decisive goal and he has been a fixture in the first team ever since. He has improved his spacial awareness considerably and looks confident rather than hesitant when in possession. Opposition defenders are finding him a tough nut to crack and another cool finish against Tottenham last week showed that Markovic may ultimately prove worthy of the sizeable fee he commanded over the summer. Also, seeing as he won’t be 21 until the week after next, there is still plenty of time for him to get even better.

 

Jordan Henderson

With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge taking most of the acclaim for Liverpool’s title charge in 2013/14, the contribution of Henderson in midfield was often overlooked. Like Markovic, he came to Anfield as a 20-year-old with a lofty reputation and transfer fee, only to struggle initially before growing into a key player. Henderson has a different skill set from his Serbian team-mate, one which isn’t as noticeable to the naked eye, but the decision to award him the vice-captaincy proved that he was an invaluable figure at Anfield. In truth, he wasn’t fully appreciated until he served a three-match ban towards the end of last season and his absence was glaring in the games against Chelsea and Crystal Palace where Liverpool let glory slip.

In the early weeks of this season, without the brilliance of Suarez and Sturridge ahead of him, Henderson seemed to have taken a step back. It was as if the quality of the much-feted SAS helped the England midfielder to raise his game, and without those two strikers he regressed. Then, when Steven Gerrard announced just after the New Year that he was leaving at the end of this season, it became known that Henderson would be his successor as captain. In the weeks since, the ex-Sunderland man has again embraced the responsibility thrust upon him and, at 24, is at the same stage of his career as Gerrard was when he was the heartbeat of Liverpool’s European Cup triumph a decade ago. Henderson looks a man reborn and Rodgers may not have to go looking too far at all for a successor to the iconic Gerrard.

 

Mario Balotelli

Let’s face it – from the moment that Liverpool announced the signing of Balotelli, we all knew that the Italian striker wouldn’t be far from the headlines. While the fireworks, darts and funny hats antics of his Manchester City days have thankfully passed, instead Mario was providing comic relief of a different kind, this time in front of the Sky and BT cameras at packed stadia. With his only pre-Christmas goals coming against Ludogorets (Champions League) and Swansea (Capital One Cup), it was beginning to look as if a goalkeeper could score in this season’s Premier League before Balotelli did. Whatever chances he did get, he wasted, and he often looked as if he quite simply could not be bothered. Speculation grew as to whether Rodgers would cut his losses altogether in January, just as Rafael Benitez did six years ago in ruthless fashion with Robbie Keane.

Fast forward to 10 February – Liverpool are drawing 2-2 at home to Tottenham in a vital game that the Reds, for all of their first half chances, should have put to bed in the opening 20 minutes. As Balotelli is sprung from the bench, Liverpool fans everywhere groan. In the 82nd minute, Adam Lallana delivers an inviting low cross into the Spurs penalty area and the moody Italian turns it into the net. That elusive Premier League goal had finally arrived and what a time to score it. Also, in stoppage time with Spurs chasing a third equaliser, Balotelli closed down opponents at every opportunity, something that seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago. His impact off the bench against Crystal Palace on Saturday, where he returned the favour to set up Lallana for the winning goal, again showed that maybe this much-criticised character does have a future at Liverpool. Two decisive substitute appearances do not suddenly make Balotelli a miracle worker, but there are signs that, like his team, he is on the right track.

27-year-old Liverpool supporter from Ireland with a keen interest in Irish, English and European football. Been writing about football in either a personal or professional capacity since I was 12.

Liverpool

Why Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson was one of the signings of the summer

Jake Jackman

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Robertson
Photo: Reuters

Andrew Robertson isn’t a household name, but he established himself as one of the best young players in the Premier League performance with an excellent performance against Manchester City.

Few expected Liverpool would be able to topple the runaway league leaders, especially after the departure of Philippe Coutinho. However, the Reds delivered one of their best performances since the appointment of Jurgen Klopp and took the three points to consolidate their own position in the top four.

It was a nervy end to the match as the visitors fought back to grab two consolation goals, but given the incredible energy that the home side showed since the first whistle, a stuttering end can be forgiven.

The 23-year-old was a signing that went under the radar during the summer and those football fans that don’t have their finger on the pulse may not have known that he had moved to Anfield. Despite a good season with Hull City, it is rare to see a player move from a relegated side to one in the Champions League.

There aren’t a lot of quality full-back options in the Premier League and Robertson showed enough to justify a transfer. It was a risk, but at the price of an initial £8 million, it was one worth taking.

The club’s official site reported the following quotes from Klopp upon the deal being announced:

“For Andrew, this is another big step on what has been a quite incredible personal journey in a very short space of time.

“I know our environment will benefit him and help him push himself even more than he has already. This is a player who does not limit his ambition.”

Klopp can’t be faulted for his record in the transfer market since arriving at Liverpool. His big money purchases have all been successes, but his decision to bring Robertson could represent the best value for money. The Reds’ boss clearly saw something in his character that suggested he would develop quickly at Anfield and his emergence in recent weeks has proven him correct.

The left-back was eased into life at a top-six club and made only three appearances for the club before December, two of which came in the Premier League. For Klopp, he needs to fully trust that a new player understands his style of play.

Those already at a high level, such as Mohamed Salah, can be expected to step straight in as they have a lot of experience of playing different systems. However, Robertson had been playing a more traditionally British system at Hull City and likely lacked the tactical knowledge of the rest of the squad.

Since the start of December, he has made the left-back position his own and his efforts against Manchester City showed that he can stand out against the very best. He was given a difficult task of marking Raheem Sterling, the former Liverpool player.

The City winger has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season and is among the top scorers. He would have been relishing the opportunity to return to Anfield and shine, but he was kept quiet by Robertson.

The former Hull City player was keen to go forward and support the Liverpool attacks. His distribution and decision making were both superb against Manchester City. In the past, we have seen Liverpool full-backs get caught upfield as they try to stick to Klopp’s strict tactical instructions.

It is difficult to master playing the position in this system, but Robertson is showing maturity beyond his years. He completed 79% of his passes, which is a good accuracy given they were playing an opposition that press high up the pitch.

Talking of pressing, Robertson was relentless in this area of his game and regularly put pressure on the Manchester City attackers. He was directly responsible for a number of turnovers as he didn’t stop running from the first minute to the last.

There was one incredible moment when he chased a ball back to Ederson and followed it until he eventually fouled Nicolas Otamendi. The Kop responded with a cheer fitting of a goal. They could see his effort and responded to it. Although he didn’t win possession, his manager would have been delighted with that phase of play.

His aggression was shown through his tackling. Robertson completed seven tackles and was only beaten twice on the dribble. Considering he was coming up against the likes of Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero, this is a very impressive return.

In addition to his tackling, the Scottish international made seven clearances to relieve the pressure on his team. The last few minutes were nerve-wracking for the home side, but the left-back remained assured in his defensive work.

Although he has a lot of areas to improve, Robertson is getting better with every game and he is establishing himself as a top-six full-back. Liverpool gambled on his potential and Klopp’s ability to develop it. His slow introduction to the first-team coupled with some excellent performances during the last six weeks show that the German manager knows what he is doing.

The 23-year-old’s performance against Manchester City captured the nation’s attention. He now needs to push on and consistency deliver at that high level.

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Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: Three talking points from Anfield

Rob Meech

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Liverpool
Photo: Reuters

Liverpool ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League record and climbed to third spot after breathtaking encounter at Anfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fabulous early strike was cancelled out by Leroy Sane as the two teams went into the half-time break level-pegging. Three goals in nine second-half minutes looked to have given Liverpool an insurmountable advantage, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all striking.

However, City mounted a late comeback and set up a grandstand finish thanks to goals from Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. Liverpool, though, held on for a deserved victory as Pep Guardiola’s men suffered their first defeat of the campaign. Here are three talking points…

Rampant Liverpool turn on the style

If any fixture was going to prove City’s undoing, it was this one. Liverpool are unpredictable but when on top of their game, few teams can live with them. They were respectful of City but undaunted by the challenge they faced, taking the game to their opponents right from the kick-off.

In their first match since Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona, Liverpool showed the Brazilian is not irreplaceable. The Fab Four may have been reduced to three, but each of Mane, Salah and Firmino found the net. The movement and pace with which they attack is frightening, as City found to their cost.

Record signing Virgil van Dijk was ruled out of the clash and Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies were magnified in his absence, with recalled goalkeeper Loris Karius also unconvincing. The Reds are still a work in progress in that regard, but under manager Jurgen Klopp they are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

City succumb but remain in the driving seat

Many believed it was City’s destiny to become only the second Premier League team to go through a season undefeated, following Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04. But such talk can now be consigned to the rubbish bin. Despite their sensational form, it would have been a monumental achievement not to lose a single fixture.

In one respect, Guardiola will be glad it has happened. Their advantage at the top of the table remains 15 points, albeit perhaps only for 24 hours, and there is no indication this result will spark a poor run of form. City fought back valiantly after the shock of conceding three times in quick succession, which will please the Spaniard greatly.

Guardiola was philosophical in defeat and recognised his side had played their part in a magnificent contest. Sometimes, a reality check is a good thing. City may no longer be invincible, but they are still the overwhelming favourites to be crowned Premier League champions in May.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is proving his worth

His Liverpool career did not start the way he would have imagined after completing a summer switch from Arsenal. In a quest to play regular football, Oxlade-Chamberlain moved to pastures new and hoped he would be rejuvenated. Initially, he struggled for game-time and his brief performance were often derided. As a result, he lost his place in the England squad.

However, Oxlade-Chamberlain is growing in stature and produced arguably his best display in a Liverpool shirt against the runaway Premier League leaders. Nothing builds confidence like a goal and his long-range strike that gave the Reds a ninth-minute lead did just that.

Playing in the central role he had coveted, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a dominant figure, using his strength and pace to great effect. His transfer to Liverpool was greeted with scepticism, but it’s clear to see that working under Klopp is having a positive impact. The former Southampton man will hope it’s enough to help him regain his place in the national team.

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Are Liverpool potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

Jurgen Klopp has guided Liverpool to the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2009, but can the German replicate the club’s impressive long-standing history of success in European competitions and guide The Reds all the way to the final?

Here, The Boot Room examines whether Liverpool have the potential to win the Champions League.

Progress so far

Liverpool were able to safely navigate the Champions League play-off against Hoffenheim back in August, running out 6-3 victors on aggregate, and they were rewarded with what appeared to be a relatively favorable group draw which paired them up with Sevilla, Spartak Moskva and Maribor.

Jurgen Klopp would have been delighted to have finished as group winners without suffering a defeat although the only consistency in his team’s performances were how inconsistent they were.

The Reds scored ten goals across two games against Maribor and netted seven times against Spartak at Anfield in the final fixture but also demonstrated their defensive frailties by throwing away a three-goal half-time lead at Sevilla.

Overall, Liverpool’s progress so far has been positive, entertaining and enthralling although much tougher challenges will lie ahead.

 

Squad Strength

Jurgen Klopp has built a squad that possesses an abundance of firepower and when Liverpool have their offensive players fit and firing they are capable of scoring goals against any team in Europe.

Mohamed Salah has been a revelation since arriving in the summer and has been well-assisted by the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, although the loss of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona has dealt the Reds a significant blow.

Defensively the reds still remain fragile with neither Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius cementing the number one jersey as their own whilst questions still remain over whether Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip or Ragnar Klavan have the quality or consistency to be regarded as to-quality defenders.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk for £75 million will certainly help to ease Liverpool’s defensive woes but it remains to be seen whether one player will transform an entire defensive unit.

Manager

There have been gradual signs of progress at Anfield since Jurgen Klopp succeeded Brendan Rodgers in October 2015 although this has yet to be transferred into actual silverware.

The 50-year-old has built a team that is full of pace, power and technical quality in the final third of the pitch and that plays exciting, dynamic and expansive brand of football, yet he has yet to secure a major trophy for any team since Borussia Dortmund won the German Cup in 2012.

Klopp has had a degree of success in European competitions, guiding Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013 and Liverpool to the Europa League final last season, although both occasions ultimately ended in defeat.

The charismatic German is still widely perceived as being one of the leading coaches in world football, but he still lacks the success in the Champions League to cement his place among the elite.

Chances of winning

Liverpool have won eight European trophies in their history, which would equate to five Champions League and three Europa League titles, but have failed to live up to that level of success in the last decade or so.

The Reds are back in the knock out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2009 and it would take a heroic effort for Jurgen Klopp’s side to reach the latter stages of the tournament.

The team possesses the attacking quality to threaten any of the remaining opposition in the competition but have retained a defensive fragility that realistically undermines their ability to reach the final.

Anfield on a European night is a fortress, yet the problems will occur on their travels. Will Liverpool be able to go away to a leading club and grind out a clean sheet and a result to keep a tie alive? Probably not.

So, it is unlikely that Liverpool will win the Champions League outright this season, but they still possess the qualities to make a significant impact in the latter stages of the tournament.

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