Saturday 18 January 2020

Comment: Another Loris Karius error means Anfield will be his biggest test - if he makes it that far

Liverpool's Loris Karius (right) speaks with manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool's Loris Karius (right) speaks with manager Jurgen Klopp

Simon Hughes

From the back of Prenton Park’s enormous Kop Stand even on fuggy evenings like this one, a second Kop flickers in the distance. Beyond the scudding waters of the Mersey, behind the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse where the Peaky Blinders series is filmed in the shadow of the largest brick building in the world, the horizon winds upwards to Everton brow. Then, there is Anfield.

Next month, Liverpool will play at home for the first time since the Champions League final. A friendly against Torino precedes the opening game of the Premier League season. West Ham United visit on a Sunday. The transfer window closes the Thursday before. Will Liverpool have a new goalkeeper by then?

Loris Karius stood in front Tranmere’s Kop for 45 minutes, his second experience of public exposure since that harrowing night in Kiev where two of his errors gifted Real Madrid their latest European title. He waited as the Liverpool players in front of them – bronzed and supple following a much-needed rest – tried to zip possession across the defence, through the midfield and ideally, as far away from him as possible – though that is the aim of any team.

Karius waited and he waited. Tranmere hammered Dunfermline Athletic of the Scottish Championship last weekend. Yet Tranmere will play their first fixture in the Football League for three years in August. For Liverpool, this was a fitness test against a side whose most influential player is captain Steve McNulty, a central defender who is a far better footballer than his mighty frame suggests. Still, this 34-year-old – a planet with his own gravitational pull whenever a header is there to be won – was ultimately released by Liverpool just around the time Gérard Houllier was putting the finishing touches to his reign as manager by completing the double signings of Florent Sinama Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec while Manchester United moved in on Cristiano Ronaldo. That was fifteen summers ago.

It might seem odd to start a match report of sorts about the figure who touched the ball the least number of times in the game. Medical examinations have persuaded Jürgen Klopp that what happened to Karius six weeks ago was influenced by concussion. While rival supporters waiting to put him down will never be won by that possibility, many of those that follow the club he represents still need convincing.

Prenton Park will be Liverpool’s closest friendly to Anfield and perhaps it will be the least hostile venue Karius will play at between now and next May due to its geography and curious allegiances. When Karius caught the ball for the first time from a cross, there was nevertheless a loud ironic cheer. It did not help that he sent the subsequent kick too hastily, with the ball arriving at the feet of a Tranmere midfielder no more than 30 yards in front of him. It did not help either that Tranmere’s consolation goal came from another one of his errors. Ollie Norburn’s free kick was ferocious. But it was straight into Karius’s chest and he spilled it, allowing Jonny Smith to score. It was a horrible, horrible moment and one that would prompt Ben Tollitt, a Liverpool supporting Tranmere substitute, to react by aiming the words, “You're f*****g s***e,” in the German's direction.

Karius would have five touches in total and another two fishing the ball out of his net. When Pedro Chirivella’s pass was under baked and James Milner did not react in the way you’d expect him to, Liverpool’s three-nil lead was cut to one. They were poor after the break. And so, Amaodu Soukouna, a French trialist, who has spent the last two seasons struggling for minutes at three clubs in the Bulgarian leagues, was afforded the freedom to capitalise on the sort of drop in focus that would normally irritate Klopp, though clearly not here.

“Mistakes will happen,” he reflected, and he is right – of course they do, sometimes involving the best players in the world. But when mistakes are made in Champions League finals and when there have been enough warnings before, some of them are of greater consequence than others. Anfield will back an individual or a collective when it has faith. It is also compassionate. But it is also smart, it remembers and it can be cruel. Karius will need to build his confidence quickly. Even more than Klopp, he needs to believe that Kiev was not all his fault if he is to somehow establish a wider trust. Klopp’s final words on the matter did feel like he acknowledges the difference between reasons for why bad things happen and excuses. “Our job is to perform and you do what you do and that is part of the deal,” he concluded.

There had been other points of interest for Liverpool. For the first time, Fabinho and Naby Keïta started in midfield together, the pair that will give Klopp the options he did not have in those draining final minutes in May when another final slipped away.

Fabinho played at the base of a midfield three and is a commanding gazelle-like figure with spring and bounce in his long limbs. He seems to be an alternative to Jordan Henderson in that position rather than a replacement or a back-up. There was more speed to his game than Emre Can’s and a sign that he can be more aggressive. In the first few minutes two opponents met him in a challenge and he steamed through both of them.

The focus was on Keïta too and his first half performance fell under the description of ‘quiet’. Knowing that competition for starting places will be intense, Adam Lallana – someone Gareth Southgate was desperate to shoehorn into his England squad but ultimately did not because of a lack of game time due to injury – was as busy as a dragonfly. He emphatically scored one of Liverpool’s three in the first half, the others coming from right back and right wing. Rafael Camacho was, in fact, a winger before Steven Gerrard converted him when he was under-18s coach, having been brought to the club’s Kirkby academy from Manchester City despite protest. Sheyi Ojo was the other scorer. Aged 21, this should be a crucial year for him but with Liverpool targeting Xherdan Shaqiri who plays in his position, he will probably need an excellent loan season in the Championship to inspire a belief that he can affect the very highest levels.

From here, Liverpool’s pre-season takes in a variety of locations. There will be trips to Bury and Blackburn ahead of friendlies in North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan and Dublin. It might not seem it now but soon enough, especially for Karius should he make it that far, a brooding Anfield will be more than a speck on the Mersey horizon.

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