Saturday 23 September 2017

John Aldridge: Coutinho may be the only person to benefit from Mane red card - but now he has to deliver

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho. Photo: PA
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho. Photo: PA

John Aldridge

The door has been opened for Philippe Coutinho’s return to the Liverpool team - and he knows he needs to hit the ground running after weeks of speculation over his future.

Sadio Mane’s red card in Saturday’s game at Manchester City was a hammer blow for Liverpool, but the 5-0 defeat was made even more depressing for manager Jurgen Klopp as he is now facing up to the prospect of losing his star man for three matches.

Mane’s clash with City keeper Ederson was accidental and while it may be a red card under the rules of the game, the suspension that goes with it has to be over the top.

Effectively, Mane has been banned for more than three and a half matches following an incident in which he showed no malicious intent and that seems very harsh to me.

Mane will not play another Premier League game until October, but that may work in Coutinho’s favour as he looks to win a place back into the hearts of Liverpool supporters.

I don’t think anyone has a big problem with a lad from South America wanting to try and force through a move to Barcelona, as that would have been a dream for him when he was growing up back in Brazil.

It was unfortunate that the transfer story was played out while the Premier League season was underway and no one believed his ‘back bad’ injury claim that has stopped him playing so far this season, as we all knew it was part of his plan to push for a transfer.

Now he needs to forget about what has gone and perform at his best for Liverpool again. I expect him to do just that and if he shows his desire is as strong as ever on the field, all the nonsense that went on over the Barcelona interest will be forgotten.

Coutinho is not a direct replacement for Mane as he plays in a more central position, but Klopp may look to introduce him in tomorrow night’s Champions League game against Sevilla, even if he is used from the bench to start with.

Then I would expect to see Coutinho starting against Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday, when his invention and guile would be very useful to unlock the door against opponents who will come to Anfield intent on defending. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also be an option to replace Mane and the attacking strength in depth Klopp now has at his disposal should ensure the absence of his most potent attacking threat is not fatal to his side’s hopes.

It will be great to hear that Champions League anthem being played at Anfield again tomorrow night, with this competition meaning more than any other to the club’s fans.

The players who guided to Liverpool to their five iconic wins in Europe’s top tournament are living legends and while it might be asking too much for Klopp’s current team to win the Champions League this season, I feel they can do well.

The draw Liverpool have been handed for this group stage of the Champions League presents a real possibility to make progress and they have to snatch it.

After avoiding Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool have to be delighted to end up with Sevilla, Maribor and Spartak Moscow. All those opponents are beatable and they should have additional motivation to win this first game against Sevilla at Anfield.

Liverpool owe Sevilla after the a crushing defeat against them in the 2016 Europa League final and I’m sure Klopp will be reminding his players of that match in the Anfield dressing room tomorrow night.

That 3-1 loss against Sevilla in May 2016 was tough to take as it meant no European football for Liverpool last season and it could have been avoided if Klopp’s side had defended better on the night.

Yet the big concern must be that the defensive issues from two seasons ago have yet to be solved a couple of seasons later and it is a major concern heading into this Champions League campaign.

Mane’s red card against Manchester City on Saturday was the primary reason why Liverpool lost the game 5-0, but the defensive problems that Klopp has struggled to clear up were in evidence once more at the weekend and I fear they may not be solved with the personnel currently at the club.

Liverpool still lacks that powerhouse leader at the back, the decisive voice, the talisman who will put his head in where it hurts.

They lack a Virgil van Dijk, dare I say, but I have been told in recent days that Southampton will not sell their Dutch defender to Liverpool under any circumstances, so they should have at least tried to get someone else in who could have done a job.

Sevilla are a decent team and their attacking players will hurt Liverpool if they are given the space to work their magic, but Klopp’s side have even more firepower at the other end of the field.

He took Mohamed Salah off at half-time in the Man City game and may have had one eye on this Sevilla game when he made that decision and Liverpool have a chance to prove they can bounce back from a big disappointment in this game.

I fancy them to get the win that will send them on their way in the Champions League, but they cannot afford a second defeat in succession as it would halt their early season momentum in an instant.

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