Friday 15 December 2017

Stephen Hunt: Klopp needs cash flow to launch a real title challenge

Jurgen Klopp has led Liverpool into the Champions League, but who might they face in the play-off round and group stages Photo: PA Wire.
Jurgen Klopp has led Liverpool into the Champions League, but who might they face in the play-off round and group stages Photo: PA Wire.
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

At the start of season I backed Jurgen Klopp to lift the Premier League title in his first full season at Liverpool. Even when they faltered at New Year and failed to win when Sadio Mane played in the African Cup of Nations in January, I continued to believe they would do it.

While Liverpool blew daft games at home, Chelsea just got stronger but I don't think anyone could have seen the change in formation undertaken by Antonio Conte after he made such an unconvincing start at Stamford Bridge, losing heavily to Arsenal.

To take the underachievers of last season, and the title-winners of two years ago, and turn them into champions again is a fantastic achievement. The credit goes to Conte, who is a great addition to the Premier League with his energy and passion on the touchline and his respect for his opponents.

Liverpool have not had a Plan B. That could be down to the personnel or formations, but the players have lacked stamina and a killer instinct to win all three points when they should be doing so.

They go into today's game at home to Middlesbrough knowing that victory means Champions League qualification. That was Klopp's target and I think he will be very happy . . . if they do it. The way they have played at Anfield against the so-called lesser teams, they are capable of blowing it.

Liverpool are a goalkeeper, left-back, centre-back, central midfielder and striker away from sustaining a challenge for the title next season. That will not come cheap and Klopp will have to be clever to find cheaper players on the foreign market, as well as spending big. They are going to need at least £200million to do it.

In goal, I see no reason why they shouldn't go for Jordan Pickford. He is Sunderland's only asset, so they will sell for a good price, and he is the best young English keeper on the market. He's certainly been the busiest and, as he showed again against Arsenal on Tuesday night, is a very good shot-stopper - as well as being able to handle the ball at his feet.

No one can argue that James Milner has been excellent for Liverpool at left-back this season, but he has been filling in and playing out of position. I am sure he and Klopp would admit they need to look to the future now and sign a good, strong attacking full-back.

And they desperately need a centre-back. After his performances for Crystal Palace, the temptation must have been to offer Mamadou Sakho a clean slate because he is the best of an inconsistent bunch who simply do not command the Liverpool defence. But it looks like he will be joining Palace permanently, if the two clubs can do a deal.

That will leave Liverpool in a shoot-out with other top clubs for Burnley's central defender Michael Keane. He has had a good first full season in the Premier League and looked comfortable in his first appearances for England. That justifies the money clubs will have to pay for him, but there are better centre-backs out there. Clubs just need to show a bit more imagination.

Liverpool need an N'Golo Kante. Jordan Henderson and Emre Can don't have that built-in 'wrecker' mentality, coupled with the ability to play a bit. Can is too much of a free spirit who needs to be more disciplined while Henderson is the less gifted player in the Liverpool midfield, who has worked hard to get to the level he is at but who, realistically, is never going to be good enough to fill Steven Gerrard's boots. He might be England captain but I don't think he has been as consistently good as Eric Dier at Tottenham.

If I were Klopp, I would be looking to cash in on Daniel Sturridge this summer. Sturridge, a born-again Christian, looks more interested in going to church and getting out his rosary beads to celebrate a goal than he does in scoring them and playing football.

Michael Owen has said that Sturridge is the best finisher at the club but they cannot afford to carry him in the team like Manchester United used to with Ruud van Nistelrooy. This season, Sturridge has relied on two or three yards of explosive pace and looked less mobile, whereas Klopp needs legs all over the pitch. With no one in the side like Luis Suarez to do his running now, Sturridge has struggled.

Liverpool will not be the only team looking to strengthen this summer. It will be interesting to see how Manchester United will be able to compete if they do not qualify for the Champions League.

Will Jose Mourinho pay for his arrogance by putting all his eggs in one basket and pursuing that qualification via the Europa League? He has put massive pressure on himself and his team and, if he fails, he will be even more miserable.

Every time the Manchester United manager has appeared on TV in recent weeks, he has been moaning about the fixture list, the number of games his team are playing and how unfair it is. He declared finishing top-four in the league was irrelevant when it was still up for grabs.

He would be wrong to dismiss Ajax, who have already secured their Champions League place through finishing second in the Dutch league. Unlike United, this young, exciting Ajax team are not desperate to win on Wednesday, but Mourinho and United are.

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