From a Liverpool perspective, few international breaks have been as pleasurable as this one. Taking an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League into a two-week break off the back of a 3-1 win over Manchester City has allowed Kopites to bask in the glory of an outstanding performance and a dominant position in the league.
I hope you enjoyed it because now comes a horrendously punishing run of games – just the 14 of them in a six-week period between today and the first weekend of January. While the Reds may have already played the rest of last season’s top six, as well as high-flying Leicester, the sheer volume of matches and variety of competitions to negotiate could well take a lot out of Jurgen Klopp’s squad.
He will likely need every player in or around his first team squad to step up over the next six weeks as Liverpool negotiate a series of challenges – from keeping their strong buffer at the top of the Premier League to ensuring that they maintain the defence of their Champions League crown into the knockout stages, from keeping the flame lit in domestic cups to striving towards a first Club World Cup triumph.
There are players in Klopp’s squad who may not have had many minutes or much impact so far this season, but could prove crucial with the arrival of the hectic winter period. Here are five men who might have a huge role to play over the next 45 days.
Liverpool don’t have a great deal of depth defensively, with right-back Nathaniel Clyne a long-term cruciate ligament victim, Joel Matip out for the last month with a knee problem and Andrew Robertson highly doubtful for today’s game at Crystal Palace due to an ankle injury stemming from the win over Manchester City.
Luckily, in Gomez they have a versatile defender who can cover in any position across the back four. The 22-year-old hasn’t started in the Premier League since the opening day win over Norwich, with a paltry nine minutes played in the division since then, but he has had full games in the Champions League and Carabao Cup in recent weeks and therefore should not be overly rusty – although a knee problem picked up in England training could have set him back slightly.
Gomez has been used mainly at centre-back this season but operated at right-back in the Super Cup against Chelsea and the 4-1 win at Genk in the Champions League. Should anything happen to Trent Alexander-Arnold that precludes him from playing over the next few weeks, his slightly older England colleague could readily step in at right-back. A win over Napoli in midweek would ensure top spot in the group and render the concluding game away to Red Bull Salzburg irrelevant, in which case Gomez should surely come in so that Alexander-Arnold can have a rare night off.
As mentioned above, Robertson missed Scotland’s recent games due to an ankle injury and has been rated as doubtful for the trip to Selhurst Park. If he doesn’t make it, the absence of any senior left-back cover would likely see Milner slip into that role.
The 33-year-old played almost a full season there in 2016/17 and has had three games at left-back this term, deputising for the Scot in the two Carabao Cup matches as well as the most recent Champions League outing against Genk.
It isn’t just at left-back that the veteran can fill in if needed, either – aside from his usual central midfield position, he played at right-back in the away win against Genk and came into the left-hand side of midfield in the win over Manchester City. [via TransferMarkt]
Aside from his marvellous versatility, Milner could also be crucial if Liverpool are given a penalty in a closely-fought contest. It was he who stepped up to the spot deep into stoppage time to turn one point into three against Leicester last month, while also scoring vital spot kicks at Fulham and Cardiff during the title run-in last season. His experience, adaptability and calmness in high-pressure situations could be so important for the team during this unforgiving period.
After having 2018/19 more or less written off due to a serious knee injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain has bounced back in style recently, with four goals in as many games after the October internationals. His Liverpool form earned him a recall to the England squad and he kept up his scoring spree on Three Lions duty by netting in the 7-0 thumping of Montenegro.
Despite his hot streak in front of goal, the 26-year-old has not started a Premier League game since the win over Newcastle more than two months ago. It seems perplexing that Klopp hasn’t been starting him more consistently given his excellent form and the clear goalscoring threat he brings from midfield, but the upcoming glut of games will surely see ‘the Ox’ featuring in the starting XI more regularly.
His confidence should be sky-high after the last month, so I would expect him to start at Crystal Palace today and hopefully get a run of games together while he is riding the crest of a wave.
The Swiss winger seemed in danger of becoming a forgotten man at Anfield, having played just 25 minutes all season and being sidelined for the last two months with a calf injury. However, he is back training with the Liverpool squad and will hope to rediscover the form he showed this time last year, when he embarked on a run of six goals in nine league games, including two in a 3-1 win over Manchester United.
Shaqiri could be thrown into action before long, given the ankle injury sustained by fellow right winger Mohamed Salah during the international break. The ex-Stoke man might have fallen out of favour at Anfield during 2019, having started only four games this calendar year and barely featured this season even before his injury, but he might need to step up soon if Salah is out for a prolonged period.
While he might not have scored for the club since the Boxing Day win over Newcastle last year, the 28-year-old will have seen how Oxlade-Chamberlain has hit a purple patch in front of goal lately after going 18 months without scoring. Shaqiri showed with his form last winter that he is capable of putting an equally prolific run together.
Just like last season, Origi has had to be content with a backup role for most of 2019/20, but that hasn’t stopped him from making a massive impact in games.
He hasn’t quite had any interventions this side of summer as heroic as the stoppage time winner in the derby or the goal that sent the Reds into the Champions League final from last term, but the Belgian still came up with a clinical display in the Carabao Cup thriller against Arsenal in October, with his two goals including an injury time volley to take the game to penalties.
The 24-year-old has scored three goals from 561 minutes of game-time this season, the same tally that fellow striker Roberto Firmino has managed in 1,418 minutes on the field. With Salah injured and the Brazilian without a goal in two months, the onus could again fall on Origi to step out of the shadows and conjure up some vital interventions to go along with those against Everton, Newcastle, Barcelona and Tottenham over the last year.
With a sizeable lead at the top of the Premier League, a healthy position in their Champions League group, two wins away from Club World Cup glory and interest in two domestic cups, 2019/20 has the potential to be a landmark season in Liverpool’s history.
If the Reds go on to win one or more of the above trophies, in particular the Premier League, many fans could well look back on this manic winter period as one which was crucial to their eventual success. Now would be a most ideal time for the players mentioned above, or indeed anyone in red, to rise to the challenge and prove an integral presence in a team that looks capable of achieving something extraordinary, but not without being severely tested along the way.