I'll never walk alone again, vows Liverpool's Sakho
Defender goes from outcast to central point of Reds revival under Rodgers
When Liverpool kicked off the last Merseyside derby in September, Mamadou Sakho was heading away from Anfield.
The French defender had just been informed that he had been omitted from the squad, and rather than hang around in his club suit to watch from the directors' box, discontent got the better of him. He drove from the stadium, and there was a widespread feeling that there would be no way back, as he had made little impression in his first 12 months at the club.
Five months on - following a fine - and Sakho's return journey has taken him to the heart of Brendan Rodgers' back-line. He will be an integral member of Liverpool's revamped system against Everton at Goodison Park, part of a defence unrecognisable from the one so unsafe in the early part of the season.
Today's derby is a chance to exorcise a ghost and build on a reputation that is earning him cult status on the Kop and has prompted Rodgers to call him a "warrior".
"That was a bad moment for me, it was a difficult time," said Sakho of his last derby. "I felt bad, but that is normal, I want to play all the time.
"It is the same with all the players - we want to play for the red shirt, and in a big game, it is important for us. I was disappointed. That is natural.
"It was hard when I wasn't playing. . . and then I was injured for a long time. But I have a strong mentality. I never doubted I would come back.
"I never thought to leave. I don't know if I have proved I belong here, that is for others to decide, but I am very happy at the club and very happy with the team.
"I have two and a half years left on my contract and never said I wanted to go. I am happy here in Liverpool, my family is happy here, there is a good ambiance, everything is settled for me, and I like being at Liverpool. I am ready to fight for the club.
"People know my mentality - I never give up. If I am out of the team I will never leave, will never walk away from the fight because of my life before. When I was younger, my life was very hard, I had some very difficult times.
"And I have a good mentality because of that. Whether I am here at Liverpool or if I am with the national team in France it is the same, I work hard, try to fight hard."
Liverpool's transfer policy has often seemed the equivalent of planting a bag of acorns and waiting for whatever grows. Sakho is starting to resemble a giant oak.
He cost £18m from Paris St-Germain in 2013 but, after an error-prone first season, any offer reimbursing such a fee would have been considered, especially as Liverpool had just signed Dejan Lovren. But Rodgers has consistently demonstrated at Anfield that no period of exile has to be permanent.
"I never turn my back on a player, especially when he is committed," said Rodgers. "We spoke about what happened (before the last derby). Everyone will make mistakes, we all do in life, but if people show me that they care enough it is OK; I knew that he cared and he was just disappointed that he wasn't involved.
"Maybe at some other clubs you can just go away early, but this is very much a team and it's also a tradition of this club that we stick together and from that there was a real light-switch moment.
"He hadn't intended to cause any offence. He was obviously really disappointed like most players are. You see consistency now, he's still got improvements to make, but you see that he really cares, he's a real warrior, he fights, he's strong and he's playing very well."
Even when Liverpool were challenging for the title last season, the plaudits for their attractiveness were balanced with suspicion of their defensive fragility.
The attentive might note Liverpool have conceded just three goals in their last seven games, two of which were penalties.
Rodgers - who leads Liverpool for the 100th time in the Premier League today - says players such as Sakho ensure a balance between physicality and artistry, exactly what is needed on a derby day.
"We've got a real competitive edge in the team. Sakho, Skrtel and Can are physical and strong, Henderson and Lucas have been brilliant, Stevie doesn't shirk anything, Coutinho is small but aggressive and so on," said Rodgers.
"It was just about making sure everyone was with that competitive edge and something that doesn't get noticed so much is the defensive quality of the team, how they're pressing and working really hard without the ball, keeping clean sheets and defending well.
"We certainly have that and especially away from home you need it so we'll look to call on that when required."
Sakho has no cause for fear when Rodgers names his team today. "I hope things have turned around for me, I want to be an important player.
"The team is better now, we are playing much better. We are together, we have a good mentality, and we have to stay like this. The Everton game is one where we have to be strong."
And how will this derby experience differ from the last?
"I hope I'm playing this time," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Everton v Liverpool, live, Sky Sports 1, 5.30pm