Football teams often have one or two players that play a key role week in week out. In Liverpool's case, most people would point to Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez for fulfilling such a role in recent times, with Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho carrying the slack this season. However, with four games left of the Premier League campaign, Simon Mignolet is a name few would have expected to be stealing the limelight.
Timely upturn in form for Mignolet
The Belgian shot-stopper has been criticised regularly since moving to Merseyside, with a number of high-profile errors costing Liverpool dear throughout the years. Spreading nerves around the defence and failing to truly establish himself as a reliable number one, Mignolet's future seemed all but over when Jürgen Klopp bought Loris Karius in the summer.
However, with the young goalkeeper failing to prove his worth when given a chance earlier in the season, Mignolet was offered what many considered to be his final chance to prove the doubters wrong.
That's exactly what he's done in recent weeks. In the absence of key men Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mané, Mignolet played a key role in securing six points from a possible six against Stoke City and West Brom.
Brazilian duo Coutinho and Firmino rightly stole the headlines at the Bet 365, having instigated a brilliant second-half turnaround. Not only that, they produced two great finishes to prove their quality and earn a crucial three points in the race for top-four.
And yet, it could have been a very different story for Liverpool had it not been for the heroics of Mignolet. 2-1 ahead with roughly 20 minutes left on the clock, the keeper got down well to deny Saido Berahino from close range. It proved to be a key save in the overall outcome of the match, and it wasn't his first, with another impressive stop denying Charlie Adam when the home side were leading early on.
The 29-year-old reproduced a similar performance at West Brom, coming off his line to deny Matt Philipps from close range with ten minutes left of the tie. A somewhat questionable technique aside, it was another indication of Mignolet's step up in form at the business end of Liverpool's season. Lots of credits should be geared towards him with maximum points in the last two away games moving the side a big step closer towards Champions League football.
Even his biggest critic, Jamie Carragher, had time to point out Mignolet's recent performances:
"Has he earned praise? Without a doubt. Liverpool have gained three points at Stoke and he's saved Liverpool two points here (at West Brom). That's five points which makes a massive difference to the look of the table."
"Mignolet's been here four years now, but the last couple of games he has been outstanding. He has made a big difference to getting Liverpool to where they are and all credit to him."
Improved yes, but Mignolet's still got a way to go yet
With Liverpool looking increasingly likely to return to Europe next season, a consistent and dependable figure in between the sticks is essential. Despite his recent upturn in form, Mignolet is neither of those things.
Since signing in 2013, he has never been able to produce a string of good performances across an entire season. That is exactly what seperates him from the bracket of David De Gea, Thibaut Courtois and Hugo Lloris. While they've all had a few rocky moments, on the whole they've been key to their teams successes this season. Their dependability in comparison to Liverpool fans faith in Mignolet indicates the room for improvement that remains for the shot stopper.
Another key attribute required in a goalkeeper is trust, without which defences are left fragmented and broken. That's very much been the case on Merseyside in recent seasons and there's almost an inevitability that a mistake or two will be made at some point within the 90 minutes. While that hasn't been the case in recent weeks, it's not as if there is an abundance of trust in Mignolet to make the saves he has been - instead, it's proven to be a rather nice surprise.
It was just two months ago that he produced a howler of a performance against Hull City at the KCOM and while he has improved markedly since, there are no guarantees over what Mignolet will turn up each week.
In Liverpool's most recent game against Crystal Palace, the goals conceded can't be attributed to the Belgian - rather a poor lapse in defensive concentration from Dejan Lovren and co. However, Mignolet hasn't turned into the perfect goalkeeper overnight and despite a string of pleasing performances, fans must remain grounded in their praise.
He undoubtedly deserves a lot of credit for his improvement and those saves could carry huge weight for what remains of the season, but if Liverpool want to be challenging for the Premier League and have a consistent involvement in the Champions League, a authoritative keeper is needed. Until Mignolet can produce those kinds of performances across an entire season, Liverpool should remain in the market for a new number one.