Another win, three league clean sheets on the bounce, and things are looking up for the Reds again after a disappointing run of cup games in the past week. With Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup semifinals, manager Brendan Rodgers has to focus on getting the Reds further in this season’s FA Cup while pushing for a top four place. Yesterday’s performance will bring much hope back for Liverpool fans in this six team fight for third and fourth, but with the Reds’ immediate rivals all gaining wins as well, much of the same will be needed from now till the end of the season, if Liverpool are to get back amongst Europe’s elite next season.
Emre Can’s Latest Baptism of Fire
The German youth international has looked impressive so far this season, and his versatility and dependability could see him as the best signing of last summer’s transfer window. On Saturday afternoon, he faced yet another different type of test, and came out of it with a good, solid defensive performance.
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Having came up against Diego Costa’s brutal aggression and Eden Hazard’s trickery over the two legs in the League Cup semis, Can now faced the league’s biggest aerial threat in ex-Liverpool man Andy Carroll. In the opening stages of the second leg on Tuesday night, Can was on the end of a Costa stamp, and yesterday afternoon, the German was on the end of an elbow from Carroll. In the second half, Can was caught by Carroll’s high boot, and it was fortunate that the latter did not get sent off for his troubles.
Despite all these knocks and bruises, it was heartening to see Can being able to stand up to such aggression and bullying, and yet maintained his composure as part of a back three. Can kept Carroll quiet all afternoon as the English international only had one soft header on goal, and Can further showed his versatility when he switched positions with Martin Skrtel in the second half. This three man unit, along with the ever-impressive Mamadou Sakho, looks set to be Rodgers’ first-choice defence – at least till the end of this season.
Coutinho and Sterling’s Fine Form Continues
Philippe Coutinho has finally hit a consistent level of performance this season, whether home or away, and once again looked to be benefitting from this formation. The Brazilian playmaker also looks to be able to last the full 90 minutes now, and was instrumental throughout. He tried again and again to force a breakthrough in the first-half, but when Coutinho did find that final ball, it was one superb flick pass that set Sterling up for a neat side-foot finish. The Brazilian then won his customary take-on against an opposing midfielder before sliding a pass for the returning Daniel Sturridge to finish.
Another key part of that trio up top for Rodgers is Sterling, who up till now has been playing as the main centre-forward. Sterling has developed more to his game with this stint up front, dropping deep to receive the ball where possible, and spinning around opposition markers when required. His finishing near the six-yard box continues to improve, however much work should be done on keeping his shots on target from outside the penalty area. Still, Sterling led the line superbly and should dovetail well with a fit-again Sturridge.
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Return of Sturridge
After five months and three injury set-backs, Liverpool have their only part of last season’s SAS back. Sturridge’s entry to the game in the second half brought huge cheers from the Anfield faithful, and despite looking a little rusty, the striker still managed a hugely impressive goal on his return. Sturridge collected Coutinho’s pass well with a fine first touch, before lashing home with his weaker right foot. With Liverpool creating an abundance of chances in the last few weeks and only managing small margin victories, Rodgers will hope the return of his valuable Englishman will see the Reds take more chances and seal games off earlier, in a way similar to last season.
His return to the side will provide the Reds with more pace up front, having relied on Sterling’s speed for most of the season. Sturridge’s return will also lift some of the heavy goalscoring burden off Sterling, hopefully lessening the pressure on the young English forward and giving him space to develop similar to last season. With Sterling likely to drop back alongside Coutinho once Sturridge fully returns to the starting line-up, Rodgers is now amassed with options in attacking areas. Adam Lallana, Steven Gerrard and even recalled winger Jordon Ibe will be vying for those places, while Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert will fear for their bench time, let alone game time. Ibe particularly impressed when he came on, showing his skill and bravery to take on opponents with his direct dribbling, and his presence might even add competition at right wing-back with Lazar Markovic. All this can only be a healthy problem for the manager.
Until then, Rodgers has to continue to manage Sturridge’s minutes on the field. Ideally, another 20 to 25 minutes should be earmarked for the midweek FA Cup replay against Bolton, while for the hustle and bustle of this Saturday’s Merseyside derby, Sturridge should only be risked for the last 30 minutes. Rodgers should only really consider starting the Englishman during next midweek’s home game against Tottenham. It is turning out to be a key week for Rodgers in his quest for FA Cup success and another top four finish, and managing Sturridge’s game time will be as important as any other tactical decision he makes.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Darren C.