Saturday 29 April 2017

Welcome boost for Liverpool as Philippe Coutinho eyes starting role in crunch Manchester United battle

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho came on against Southampton during the week
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho came on against Southampton during the week
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Picture: PA

Chris Bascombe

Liverpool are ready to thrust Philippe Coutinho back into the starting line-up for this weekend's crucial trip to Manchester United.

Coutinho played the last 29 minutes of his side's 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final against Southampton. His brief cameo demonstrated what Liverpool has been missing during his six-week absence with an ankle injury.

The Brazilian has not started a league game since November 26, when a 2-0 victory over Sunderland returned Klopp's side to the top of the Premier League. They have since dropped seven points and trail leaders Chelsea by five as the strength in depth of Klopp's squad has been tested.

Now the German coach is ready to turn to the Brazilian at Old Trafford, and will decide over the course of the next two training sessions whether captain Jordan Henderson is ready to join him.

Henderson trained alongside another recent absentee Joel Matip at Melwood yesterday, but both are struggling to make the game. Henderson is the most likely to force his way into Klopp's plans as he tries to shrug off a heel injury. Matip is still thought to be still some time off a comeback.

Coutinho's fitness offers some relief, with James Milner saying: "He's a top player and every team in the world would miss him. It's a credit to the boys the amount of goals we have been scoring without him, but it's great to see him back. The more minutes he gets, the more comfortable he'll get again. It's not easy when you've been out that long, still thinking about the injury, so it was positive for him to get some minutes."

Although the Southampton defeat was the worst Liverpool display of the season, they have enjoyed enough notable victories recently - not least against Manchester City - to retain their title aspirations ahead of meeting Jose Mourinho's side.

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However, Liverpool and United meet in different circumstances to their Anfield encounter in October. The question heading into what was a dour stalemate was how United would stop Klopp's swaggering side. Now Klopp will be assessing how to get that swagger back. Liverpool first hit the top of the league with a 6-1 win over Watford on November 6, but it is worth noting the quartet of Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane has not started together since.

Lallana was injured on international duty a week later and, by the time he returned, Coutinho was absent. Now those two are in tandem it is the absence of Mane on international duty at the African Nations Cup that has left a void, the Senegal striker's pace fundamental to Liverpool's success this season. Mane and Henderson's absence was debilitating in midweek.

Winning a title is about the quality of a squad rather than just the starting XI, and questions remain as to whether Klopp's back-up options are at the required level.

Meanwhile, former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is to receive the freedom of his home city. Gerrard has been nominated for the civic award by Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson, a recognition of the 36-year-old's contribution to national and international football as well his charity work. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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