The decision to let Philippe Coutinho leave Liverpool in January was a brave and extremely bold one from Jurgen Klopp, but perhaps even more surprising was the lack of any signing to replace the outgoing Brazilian.
Attempts were made to bring in Naby Keita from Leipzig six months earlier than his scheduled summer arrival, but other than that, Klopp seemed happy to place his faith in the squad he had available to him.
It left the Liverpool boss with 21 outfield players, one of whom hadn’t played in eight months (Nathaniel Clyne); one was sidelined on and off for most of the season (Adam Lallana); and another had never - and still hasn’t - started a league match (Ben Woodburn). To say Klopp’s squad was small for competing on domestic and European fronts would be an understatement.
Now, following long-term injuries to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez, plus Emre Can’s prolonged absence, Klopp’s squad has looked extremely fatigued after a busy month of fixtures at home and abroad.
Ultimately, Klopp’s faith in his squad will be decided by Liverpool’s next two results; win them both and there will be no memories of the tired performances that have seen them crawl to draws with Everton, Stoke and West Brom.
Liverpool really should have had their top-four finish guaranteed by now, making Sunday’s final game of the season against Brighton a relaxed affair before they head off to Kiev a fortnight later for the Champions League final.
Alas, Liverpool rarely do things the easy way and instead a slightly nervy day awaits the Anfield faithful. They faced a crucial match on the final day of last season, when a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough ensured the vital top-four spot. Only a point is required against Brighton, but with Liverpool taking just two points from their last three league games, nothing is guaranteed.
Fresh and firing
While Liverpool have laboured in their Premier League finish thanks to those exertions in the Champions League with a very small squad, but one player who has been fresh and firing in recent weeks is Sadio Mané.
The Senegal attacker has been the man who has stepped up the most since Coutinho’s exit, and arguably benefited from the playmaker's departure.
Mané endured a difficult first half of the season, having been switched from the right-sided role he occupied impressively last season, to the left of Liverpool’s attack in order to accommodate Mohamed Salah. Such an adjustment understandably took some time adapting to. There was also the red card at Manchester City which seemed to affect his confidence, and a hamstring injury in autumn that sidelined him for five games.
These were factors behind why it was so rare that Liverpool’s so-called ‘Fab Four’ all lined up together. When they did, though, it was Mané who found himself on the periphery, as Coutinho moved into the wide-left area where the Senegal attacker had been accustomed to occupying in 2016/17.
With Coutinho in a similar area to him, and now switched to the left, Mané had far less space than he was used to on the right. Coutinho’s departure, plus the emergence of Andrew Robertson at left-back, has given Mané that space again and his form has improved accordingly. Liverpool’s attack looks more balanced and Mané has been the key beneficiary.
The main Mané
In the recent games against Chelsea, Roma and Stoke, Mané has been Liverpool’s liveliest attacker, benefiting from having played fewer minutes in the first half of the season. He looks fresher than Salah or Roberto Firmino, scored the opening goal in Rome and was Liverpool's main threat at Stamford Bridge, especially early on.
This season has been his most prolific since moving to England with Southampton four years ago, and one more goal will see him hit the magical 20 mark. Of the 19 that Mané has scored this season, 12 have come since Coutinho’s departure; including six in the Champions League.
February's hat-trick in Porto certainly boosted the morale of a player who has scored in fits and starts throughout his career, hinting at confidence issues. “They are human beings, not machines,” proffered Klopp appropriately.
Goals against Manchester City and in both legs against Roma underline Mané’s importance in getting Liverpool to the Champions League final.
A year ago, as the Reds pushed to qualify for the Champions League for only the second time in nine years, Mané was sidelined with a knee injury and missed the final eight games. Now he has the opportunity to make up for that and earn his place in Liverpool history.
Run of the Miln
The other player who has stepped up in Coutinho’s absence is James Milner. Few would have anticipated the veteran midfielder being such a key player for Liverpool at this stage of the season, but injuries have given him an opportunity he's grabbed gratefully.
The former Manchester City man, who has been in the Liverpool squad for all 54 games so far this season, started 10 matches before Coutinho’s departure and 15 since. He, like Mané, appears to be one of the few players who are still fresh at this late stage of the season and again this could be due to having played fewer minutes in the first half of the campaign.
“It’s fantastic to see how much he works for the team, he’s really needed,” assessed Loris Karius this week. “He does the dirty work for us. When you look after the game at how much running he does, it’s hard to believe he can do that every three or four days, but he does. He’s like a machine, a really good player who is so important to us as a team.”
Milner deserves such praise, especially after starting the season as Liverpool’s seventh-choice central midfielder. With those seven now down to just three, Milner has been vital on and off the pitch, as one of the few players in the squad who has experience of winning major titles.
Can Mané and Milner be Liverpool’s 2018 version of Vladimir Smicer and Didi Hamann, and repeat their heroics of 2005? The next two weeks will reveal everything.
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