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How Liverpool successfully navigated through AFCON and emerged stronger than ever

With every competition well underway, it seems inconceivable to think that Liverpool were being written off by many pundits and fans at the start of the season. Manchester City, Chelsea and a Manchester United side bolstered with big-name signings were all tipped for trophies ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s side but back then the reasoning behind those opinions were valid.

There were questions over how strong the Reds squad was, how far would the Reds style of play stretch that squad, and how would the loss of important players to the African Cup of Nations affect their progress throughout a month Liverpool are known to struggle through.

A combined 33 goals and 10 assists across 26 games for both Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane did not do any favours in calming Liverpool’s fans worries in the first half of the season; an earlier blip than usual in December, some badly timed injuries to the likes of Thiago Alcantara, and more fixtures in January than normal, all seemed to be leading to the creation of a black hole in which each competition would inevitably be sucked down.

The story was set before the plane departed for Cameroon when Mane and Salah scored in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea but the month that followed could not have gone any better for Jurgen Klopp and his squad, as their key men return to Merseyside with the club in a better place than before they left.

A run of six games without their stars began in the FA Cup against Shrewsbury Town, as a much-changed Liverpool side came back from 1-0 down to avoid becoming part of a cup upset story. Fabinho starred for the young Reds side, as the Brazilian led his side to a 4-1 victory, scoring an unlikely two goals alongside the usual commanding performance in midfield.

This led Liverpool into the first-leg of their re-arranged Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Anfield, as they looked to replicate the 4-0 scoreline over the Gunners earlier in the season. The Reds were unrecognizable from that November win, as a timid Liverpool put in their worst performance throughout the AFCON period, with Jurgen Klopp’s men failing to capitalise on a first-half red card for Granit Xhaka.

In the space of a week, Liverpool would compete in their third competition, as they returned to Premier League action. Brentford were the visitors to Anfield and became victim to a comfortable, yet unconvincing 3-0 win for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Once again, Fabinho was the star of the show; the Brazilian putting in another solid midfield display whilst adding yet another goal to continue as the club’s surprise goal scorer in the absence of Salah and Mane.

That led the Merseyside side nicely into their second leg tie with Arsenal in the Carabao Cup, as the Reds looked to reach a League Cup final for the first time since 2016. Liverpool had to hold off an Arsenal outfit looking to start the game fast and it was up to Ireland’s Caoimhin Kelleher to prevent his side from going behind.

From there, the gap between the sides then began to show, with Liverpool going on to win the tie 2-0. It was a double from Diego Jota that secured the Merseyside club’s place in the final, a performance that showed exactly why the Portuguese international deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Reds famous front three.

The dominance from Brentford and Arsenal would soon be replaced by luck when Liverpool travelled to London to face Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace. Playing the reverse role to the game prior, the Merseyside club were outstanding in the first half but required a massive performance from goalkeeper Alisson in the second and a bit of help from the officials with a soft penalty decision that ultimately took the game out of the Eagles sight.

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With all the hard work in the past, there was one more fixture to address in this period that was forecasted to be a problem for the Reds; a home tie in the FA Cup against Cardiff. A brilliant second-half performance saw Jurgen Klopp’s men advance to the fifth round with a 3-1 win, the highlight being an emotional first senior goal for Harvey Elliott having returned for the first time since a serious injury sustained against Leeds United earlier in the season.

Over on the continent of Africa, Liverpool’s contingent were all putting in man of the match displays. Naby Keita left at the last 16 stage, whilst the two frontmen went all the way to the final with Sadio Mane’s Senegal the eventual victors.

All returned uninjured, with a motivated Salah returning having fallen at the final hurdle, and a Mane who needed the confidence boost of being named player of the tournament and the joy of delivering a first AFCON title for his country.

Everything seemed to go Liverpool’s way throughout this ill-fated period. Even off the pitch, the Reds secured the signing of highly-rated Colombian Luis Diaz, whilst having key players such as Thiago and Harvey Elliott return to full fitness.

How they navigated through this is easy to comprehend. Klopp’s style of play is ingrained into every member of the squad, from the stars to the kids who just train with the squad. Although there is an obvious drop in quality, Liverpool’s strength comes in the form of the team being able to sustain a high level when key pieces of the puzzle are missing.

This, alongside addressing the now-debunked theory that Liverpool’s squad was not strong enough were key to successfully navigating through this period.

Liverpool’s AFCON contingent now return to a squad with no injury concerns and whose confidence is at a season-high. The Reds are still competing on all four fronts through February, which is unprecedented for a generation of the club’s fans. History could be in the making for Jurgen Klopp and his men across the remaining months of the season, a fortune many would never have predicted back in August.

Read – 90s Hitmen: Romario, a Brazilian goalscoring genius

Read Also – Midfield Magicians: The effortless orchestrator, Michael Laudrup

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