By David Lynch
There was a collective sharp intake of breath at Anfield the moment it became clear that Lucas Leiva was to be withdrawn against Manchester City on Sunday.
Just five minutes had passed of what is, in theory at least, the hardest game the Reds should face at home this season and already their defensive shield had been punctured. The club’s fans are fully aware of the decline which began with Lucas’ injury last season, and here they were about to go 85 minutes against the champions without their Brazilian safeguard.
But something was different this time. The Anfield outfit did not rock helplessly without their anchor and, though they conceded two goals, the strikes certainly did not originate from the area the midfielder so expertly prowls.
Much of the praise for that must go to the tenacious Joe Allen, a ball-playing Iniesta-lite – in the most complimentary sense of the phrase – who was given the opportunity to drop deep and snap at the ankles of man mountain Yaya Toure and his cohorts.
It is not a role that the Welshman was built for, nor bought for, but he proved himself an able deputy as City toiled in the centre of the park, despite their numerical advantage through the use of a 3-5-2 system.
Meanwhile, the man who replaced Lucas, Jonjo Shelvey, did his bit in filling Allen’s post further up the pitch. Following a poor performance against Hearts in the Europa League just three days prior, many might have been sceptical about the Romford-born midfielder’s introduction.
The Anfield faithful’s fears were allayed, however, as the former Charlton player evidenced his intelligent movement and passing range before coming inches from scoring a winner with minutes remaining. In short, he looked like he’d been coached.
Now, following the news that Lucas is set to be out for up to three months, Rodgers is likely to use those performances against Roberto Mancini’s side as a source of comfort. While the Northern Irishman may not have a ready-made replacement for the former Gremio man, he will feel he can at least cope. And that in itself is an improvement upon last term.
Dalglish’s squad was left woefully exposed following the injury to Lucas’ anterior cruciate ligament in December, as the man who had been tasked with taking his place, Jay Spearing, came up short. Charlie Adam had also patently failed to make the jump in quality following his move from Blackpool, and it is no coincidence that both are expected to leave the club by Friday’s transfer deadline.
Despite those imminent departures, Rodgers has inherited an encouraging base from which his Scottish predecessor may not have benefited. Both Shelvey and Jordan Henderson are wiser for their experiences during a difficult season last time around and have the opportunity to flourish in bit-part roles this term. And it is the fact that Rodgers has recruited so intelligently for the first team gives the young pair the time they require to develop.
Allen already appears to be an astute buy; an answer to the Reds’ poor ball retention and lack of cool heads in the middle. The loan signing of Nuri Sahin also represents the perfect deal for a club of Liverpool’s stature; a way to secure top-four standard players without having yet qualified for the Champions League.
The Turkey international’s quality was never in doubt during his brief cameos for Real Madrid last year but his fitness, following a long injury lay-off, was. At Anfield he has the perfect opportunity, particularly with Lucas out, to evidence the skills which saw him orchestrate Borussia Dortmund’s 2011 Bundesliga win – starting with Arsenal on Sunday.
If Rodgers can coax that form from the Germany-born playmaker then an argument can be made for the Merseyside club having their strongest midfield line-up since Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Momo Sissoko were on the books.
The Kop hailed that quartet, only partially tongue and cheek, as “the best midfield in the world” and while they may have had some competition, their record in the Champions League certainly backed it up.
Of course, the club’s current options only look as attractive on paper, and there is a long way to go before judgements over their effectiveness can be made. But the reaction amongst the fans to Lucas’ injury points to a change in attitude around Anfield borne out of some clever transfer work.
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