The Reds are eight points clear at the top of the Premier League but their squad is going to be pushed to the limit between now and year’s end
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, apparently.
But for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, it’s also the most worrying. Bushtucker trials are nothing compared with the Reds’ winter schedule.
The Premier League leaders resume their campaign this weekend with a testing trip to Crystal Palace. Familiar faces lie in wait – Roy Hodgson, Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho, Martin Kelly; each of them eager to bloody the nose of their former club.
Having scaled one mountain in beating Manchester City last time out, the Reds now face a whole host of them. With 14 games across the next six weeks, this is the period which could come to define their campaign.
“Nothing can stop me now,” Mr Burns once said in The Simpsons, “except microscopic germs.”
Burns was talking, naturally, about world domination, alluding to the way in which unforeseen dangers can hinder one’s plans. Klopp could arguably relate.
Nothing can stop the Reds now, except injuries and fatigue, perhaps. Rather than microscopic germs, the Liverpool manager’s concerns revolve more around calf strains and hamstring tweaks, ankle rolls and jarred knees.
At Palace, for example, they could be without Mohamed Salah, who continues to feel the effects of an ankle injury sustained against Leicester seven weeks ago. The Egyptian has been unable to train fully since the win over City, and missed his country’s games with Kenya and Comoros during the international break.
It is unusual for Salah to miss any kind of football for Liverpool. Last season, he featured in all 38 Premier League matches, and sat out just one Champions League tie – the 4-0 semi-final win over Barcelona, when he was ruled out due to concussion.
In each of his full seasons on Merseyside, he has clocked up 52 appearances in all competitions. His quality is undeniable, but his durability is equally impressive.
Liverpool will do everything to get him back on the pitch as soon as possible. Richie Partridge, one of the club’s physios, has been working closely with Salah during the international break, and the player has posted regular pictures of him in the gym and, on Wednesday, on the indoor training pitch.
Klopp will give him every chance to prove his fitness. Why wouldn’t he, given that when Liverpool went to Manchester United without their No.11 last month, they dropped their only points of the league campaign so far?
Salah’s form may not be as scintillating as some would like, but he remains vital to Liverpool’s chances. They certainly do not want to be without him for too long.
The same applies to Andy Robertson, another player who is struggling to be ready for the weekend. The Scotland captain is also carrying an ankle issue, and has also been unable to train in recent weeks because of it.
It is perhaps telling that James Milner, in a recent Instagram post, referred to “the left-backs union” after uploading a picture alongside ex-Reds defender Stephen Warnock – the vice-captain is likely to find himself there on Saturday, if Robertson is not passed fit.
Better news arrived from Melwood on Tuesday with the sight of Xherdan Shaqiri in full training. The Swiss star has been absent for two months following a calf tear, and has so far been restricted to just 29 minutes of competitive action this season. His return now, though, could hardly be better timed.
Liverpool, one way or another, will need him before December is out, just as they will need Milner, Divock Origi, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Joe Gomez.
Youngsters such as Curtis Jones, Rhian Brewster and Harvey Elliott will also be primed, and not just for that ridiculously scheduled Carabao Cup quarter-final at Aston Villa in which the Reds, with their senior players in Qatar for the Club World Championship, will surely field a virtual youth team.
They can at least help themselves by beating Napoli at Anfield next Wednesday. That would see them progress to the Champions League as Group E winners, and take the pressure off their trip to Salzburg on December 10. Given the congestion, that would be a significant victory at a critical time of year.
Klopp knows how big the win over City was, of course, but with eight league games between now and January 2, the German appreciates how quickly things can change.
An eight-point lead at the top of the table can quickly disappear if you don’t prepare properly for Palace and Brighton, Everton and Bournemouth, Watford and Leicester, Wolves and Sheffield United.
“Who wants to be first in November?” Klopp asked in his post-match press conference after the City game. “You want to be first in May.”
Liverpool’s success has been built on their mentality as well as their ability, with Klopp and his staff repeating the mantra that the next game is always the most important.
He trusts his senior players, led by captain Jordan Henderson, to police themselves, to avoid complacency and to keep standards high. To be the best, he reasons, you have to behave like the best – every single day.
You also, it is fair to say, need a fair bit of luck. Liverpool certainly will in the next month-and-a-half, on and off the field.
Nothing can stop them now. Or can it?
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