I never thought I’d be writing this but Jordan Henderson has been a huge loss to Liverpool during his recent spell on the sidelines and it’s a major boost that he’s fit to face Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.
Henderson hasn’t just been missed for his play. He is the glue in this team, the one ensuring that everybody maintains concentration and urgency – because even the best players need to be reminded sometimes.
The Reds captain is the main link between manager Jurgen Klopp and the men on the pitch. The team’s results in his absence show how important his leadership has become and it’s no surprise to see him talked about as a footballer of the year candidate.
Henderson suffered his hamstring injury in the first leg of Liverpool’s Champions League last 16 tie in Madrid, which they lost 1-0, and it is only since then that things have gone wrong.
A shock 3-0 Premier League loss at struggling Watford ended their 18-game winning run and 44-match unbeaten sequence before they also lost in the FA Cup, going down 2-0 at Chelsea.
Suddenly, Liverpool have looked uncharacteristically complacent. Even Virgil van Dijk has had suspect moments – see how easily he let Abdoulaye Doucoure get past him and cross for Watford’s opening goal.
Reds robbed of momentum
To some extent, Liverpool are victims of their own success. If they aren’t dominating teams then people will say they’ve faded, but any great team has fluctuations in performance.
Keeping results ticking over is the key, however. Clearly they have lost momentum and cohesion, partly because a 25-point lead in the league has robbed them of some edge.
Our 1984-85 Everton side went through something similar. We clinched the title early and, although we wanted to finish in style, we lost three of our last four league fixtures because we weren’t quite tuned in.
Atletico were always going to be tough opponents. While their results haven’t been brilliant this season, they have stubborn, hard-working and intelligent footballers and a fierce coach.
They boast serious Champions League pedigree under Diego Simeone while their goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, is as good as anyone in England and probably equal best in the world with Liverpool’s Alisson.
The hosts, meanwhile, are seeking another famous second-leg comeback to follow last year’s turnaround against Barcelona, but this Atletico team won’t give up goals as easily as Barca did.
Best ever Liverpool team?
Now the league is all but won, Liverpool must switch focus to defending their European crown and rediscover their form. I think they can turn it on again, especially with Henderson available.
It’s no exaggeration to say this match could define their season. If they fail to progress it will kill any argument that this is the best ever Liverpool team stone dead.
If they can retain the Champions League, on the other hand, it will elevate an already great year to a spectacular one.
And if they do overcome Atletico I fancy it to restore their confidence levels to 100 per cent and Liverpool to go all the way.