LIVERPOOL: Mohamed Salah’s brilliance has taken most of the focus away from Liverpool’s midfield concerns as they seek to finish a memorable season in style.
Jurgen Klopp’s side host Stoke City in the Premier League on Saturday with confidence sky-high after Tuesday’s spectacular 5-2 victory over Roma in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final.
Salah produced a masterclass against his former club, scoring twice and providing two assists as he took his club total for the season to 43. Four more goals would equal Ian Rush’s Liverpool record for goals in one season, set in 1983-84.
Yet while there was much talk after the game of the Egypt winger being a serious contender for the Ballon d’Or, there was also concern about the season-ending injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, which could have serious implications for Liverpool’s ambitions.
The England international will miss the World Cup after suffering knee ligament damage in making a challenge on Aleksandar Kolarov, and his absence leaves Klopp with a headache.
Liverpool are already short of options in midfield, with Emre Can absent because of a bad back and Adam Lallana, who has endured a dreadful season with injuries, recovering from a hamstring problem.
Klopp’s only available senior midfielders are the three players who finished Tuesday’s match — Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner — and he can ill-afford to lose any of them to injury before the second leg of the Roma tie in Italy on Wednesday.
Yet the manager has only two options if he wishes to rest any of them against Stoke — either change the 4-3-3 formation that has been his preference this season, or promote one of his younger players to the starting line-up.
The former option would probably see Klopp go for a 3-4-3 set-up, with Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno operating as the wing-backs either side of a central midfield pairing of Henderson and Wijnaldum, allowing Milner to preserve his energy for what is likely to be a physically demanding night in Rome.
Should Klopp decide to stick with 4-3-3, then that may well see Ben Woodburn given a rare chance. The 18-year-old Wales international has played just 45 minutes of first-team football for Liverpool this season, with injury and illness a partial factor, although he is fully fit now and has been featuring regularly for the club’s Under-23 side.
– Champions League –
Liverpool cannot afford to weaken their side too much on Saturday, given that they still need a maximum of five points from their final three matches to ensure a top-four finish, and a place in next season’s Champions League.
Opponents Stoke may have gone 11 Premier League matches without a victory but their manager Paul Lambert has declared that they must win at Anfield to keep alive their faint hopes of avoiding relegation — they are four points from a position of safety with three games to play.
Salah is expected to start on Saturday, just as he did at West Brom last weekend as Klopp rested other key players. The manager will seek a far more coherent performance than his team produced at The Hawthorns, where the defence looked shaky and a two-goal lead was lost in a 2-2 draw.
“The atmosphere against Roma was absolutely outstanding,” Klopp said.
“So, I say to everybody who has a ticket, I expect exactly the same atmosphere on Saturday because we need it. That’s a massive game for us and we need to be ready for that, and we try everything to be ready for that.”