Tuesday 17 July 2018

Milner and Co ensure home fires fuel Klopp's engine room

Liverpool's James Milner gets the better of Roma's Radja Nainggolan. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine
Liverpool's James Milner gets the better of Roma's Radja Nainggolan. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

Chris Bascombe

The question at Anfield not so long ago was how Liverpool would cope following the loss of their dynamic midfielder?

It is a measure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's rapid progress at Anfield it was his departure, not that of Philippe Coutinho, that caused the first ripple of anxiety on the Kop in this enthralling European campaign.

Amid the celebrations for Liverpool's Formula One football inspired by the men from Egypt, Brazil and Senegal, it will not have escaped Gareth Southgate's attention Jurgen Klopp has come to rely on those from London, Sunderland and, most effectively of all, Yorkshire, to start and keep the engine running.

It was they who came to the fore in those early stages. It was the harrying of Jordan Henderson and the all-round brilliance of James Milner that allowed Liverpool to find their stride and launch a blitz.

The poignant symbolism was not lost that it was Oxlade-Chamberlain's perfectly timed tackle back after 15 minutes that led to the injury to his right knee, a setback which at first glance looked like it was serious enough to end his World Cup hopes.

Klopp fears the injury was "really bad".

"If you can say that already before the scan then it's never good news, so that means for us it's a massive blow.

"We have still some very important games to go and the squad doesn't get bigger any more, so we need to be creative in the next few games."

Nevertheless, Southgate must have been both thrilled and irritated by what he has been watching when Liverpool's midfield faces Europe's best. Two thirds of it now looks unavailable.

That is not just a consequence of Oxlade-Chamberlain's injury, but Milner's unwillingness to reconsider his decision to retire from international football.

Southgate should be cursing the shoddy treatment of Milner by his predecessors, the now central midfielder tiring of being perceived as the utility man who will fill in when needed, but too rarely seen as the first pick.

While Mohamed Salah was picking out the top corner and indulging with his now traditional chip over a delicate 'keeper, Milner was running the midfield.

Having started the season wondering if he would be continuing as a makeshift left back like last year, he is now arguably the most complete central midfielder at the club.

There is another irony.

As Liverpool have edged closer to a Champions League final, so thoughts have inevitably turned to what Coutinho must be thinking?

It is not a question asked in sympathy, the Brazilian cast as the 2018 version of Michael Owen - the last Liverpool superstar whose sale to La Liga was meant to lead to rapid demise, but ended with European triumph.

When Liverpool last lifted the European Cup in 2005, wisdom argued Owen's sale precipitated a success that would otherwise have been impossible, as money was reinvested in Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia. Without the Spanish duo, Istanbul would never have happened. History may be repeating itself.

Since Coutinho's January sale, the structure of Liverpool's midfield has been altered with positive consequence.

Would Milner have featured so prominently had Coutinho stayed? Now it is inconceivable they would go into a game of this stature without him.

Similarly, the rapid development of Oxlade-Chamberlain must also in part be attributed to Brazilian's sale.

Southgate must also identify the Henderson skippering Liverpool here and distinguish him from that so often miscast for England.

The Liverpool captain plays a specific role for his club. It is not his job to look for the Hollywood pass, but to maintain the tempo of attacks while retaining his position to prevent counter-attacks, with Milner easing him through the more difficult moments.

Southgate's appeals to Milner to reconsider have so far failed. After this display, he may consider getting on his knees and begging. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport