Yes, Philippe Coutinho is gone. Yet all is far from lost for Liverpool.
Jürgen Klopp’s group of players are far more talented than what Brendan Rodgers had at his disposal when he lost Luis Suarez, or Kenny Dalglish when Fernando Torres departed.
Liverpool do need a replacement of sorts – finding a player who is an exact replica to Coutinho will be effectively impossible, but an injection of quality and creativity is desperately required in midfield, while another forward could be needed should both Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings leave the club in January. A new goalkeeper and defender would not go amiss either, effectively improving the entire spine of Liverpool’s side.
Nevertheless, most of this work will have to take place in the summer, but for Klopp to get his top targets, Champions League football will, in all likelihood, be needed. Therefore, signing a Naby Keïta or Thomas Lemar is vital before the end of month to ensure the Reds stay ahead of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in the race for a top four spot.
Concern and debate surrounding both Coutinho and Liverpool’s future will have to be suspended temporarily however, as this weekend the Reds take on the Premier League’s runaway leaders, Manchester City.
If Pep Guardiola’s first year in Manchester was underwhelming, with no major trophy in a season for the first time in the Spaniard’s glittering career, plus an early Champions League exit in the last 16 to surprise package Monaco, then no one can question his methods now.
City are fifteen points clear of the distant chasing pack who are not really chasing anymore, but scrapping out between themselves for the remaining Champions League places.
A magical City side
The blue side of Manchester could yet eclipse Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams from their greatest rivals, or Arsène Wenger’s greatest sides at Arsenal, peaking with the 2004 ‘Invincibles’, and Chelsea of the last decade and a half with the most dominant campaign in Premier League history, such is the start that City have made this season.
Just a scarcely believable four points have been dropped from 66 available thus far, whilst playing football that is almost out of this world, and making José Mourinho’s life at Old Trafford extremely uncomfortable.
The current Manchester United manager has been powerless to prevent Guardiola’s attractive style of play dominate at the expense of Mourinho’s mundane and predictable patterns, with both equally spending vast amounts of money to completely dwarf the rest of the Premier League put together.
City have not lost a single game in the Premier League this season, with their only reverse in all competitions being a narrow defeat away to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, when there was nothing on the line for Guardiola’s team.
Arguably there is little on this game too for City, given their vast lead at the top of the table. However, Guardiola will ensure that his team remain focused and relentless in their pursuit of an early league title victory, before focusing on adding to their incredible exploits, particularly with the Champions League – but even a dream quadruple cannot yet be ruled out.
Reds well positioned for upset
For Liverpool, they come into this clash on an unbeaten run of seventeen games in all competitions, a record for the Reds under Klopp.
Even Coutinho’s departure will not dent the deep reserves of confidence that have been built up in recent months, as the Reds have both demolished teams and grounded out narrow, late victories.
Virgil van Dijk’s arrival and performance against Everton will be a welcome boost into Liverpool’s backline as they prepare to take on the only side that have scored more goals than their own deadly attack this season.
Mohamed Salah’s fitness race, like all other races the Egyptian takes part in, has been won, undoubtedly to Klopp’s relief. For all of Liverpool’s improved squad depth, had Salah been ruled out of this game, together with the loss of Coutinho, then Liverpool would have been staring at a league double against the champions-elect.
Salah’s form this season has been nothing sort of sensational, and the pace that he and Sadio Mané have to offer will deeply concern the City rearguard.
They were panicking in September at the Etihad, after Liverpool had arrived in form following a 4-0 thrashing of Arsenal (without Coutinho). Unfortunately for the Reds, they were inconsistent in front of goal at the time, with Salah in particular missing big chances to give Liverpool the lead at the Etihad, before Sergio Agüero set City on their way.
Yet Liverpool were still in the game, and it was the controversial red card for Mané, plus Liverpool’s abject defending, that ensured the match was another City thrashing instead of a close contest.
Liverpool will want revenge for the injustice of that day, but they will also feel that it was just another example of their unwanted ability to collapse mentally and concede goals rapidly.
After displaying their grit and determination in recent wins against Leicester City, Burnley and Everton, Liverpool will want to prove their strength of character and not get rolled over by City’s remorseless machine in front of their own fans, despite the quality that the Reds will face.
Liverpool know they can trouble City – their record against them in recent years is decent, and they took four points off Guardiola in the league last season. Admittedly, City have never looked better than this season, but Liverpool did start well at the Etihad and caused problems, and will need to build on that promise in the return at Anfield on Sunday.
Liverpool need all the points they can get as they seek another top four finish, and whilst this will be their toughest game yet, City will face an equally daunting task as they attempt to preserve their unbeaten record and create their own slice of history.
Expect drama, goals, a seriously special game – and success for Liverpool? We will soon find out.