The journey for Liverpool supporters this season has taken them from the temple of doom into a pit of despair via a detour into the black hole of misery. Just the usual visitors’ tour of Anfield of recent years, some might argue.
The revelation Sadio Mané will be absent for six weeks thanks to sustaining a hamstring injury during all those all-important, utterly crucial, wonderfully entertaining international fixtures we have endured over the last fortnight has turned the dark clouds hovering over Merseyside into a full blown tornado of trepidation.
Given how Liverpool have performed during Mané’s recent absences, there may be a hasty revising of targets for the season ahead. He was their best player last season and his recent three-game suspension demonstrated how sorely his pace and goal threat is missed.
So when Jürgen Klopp attends his pre-match briefing for Manchester United over the next 48 hours, rather than taking his seat at the table he could be forgiven for banging his head onto it. Clearly Liverpool’s season is over. They will lose this weekend, their Champions League flight to Maribor might as well be cancelled and the three points dispatched to Slovenia, and preparations should made forthwith for a PR drive declaring mid-table respectability will represent a good campaign.
Alternatively, as is Klopp’s way, he will offer a more positive and persuasive argument that doomsday can wait.
There is plenty he can do to ensure Mané’s injury is a setback rather than catastrophe.
For a start, today should be the day Klopp pulls aside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and reminds him he is Liverpool’s record signing. Six weeks on from his arrival would be an appropriate moment to start playing a bit of football.
Naturally, Klopp will have his own way of getting into mind of the former Arsenal midfielder, but the politest way of putting it would be thus.
“Alex, any chance of showing everyone what you can do now? The need is great.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain is not the only player who needs to step up – and that would have been the case without Mané’s injury.
This weekend, Klopp’s selection seems more straightforward. Going into the fixture there was already a worry a three-man midfield of Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho would be outmuscled by United, who will come to Anfield to replicate the job Martin O’Neill’s Ireland achieved in Cardiff.
Coutinho will presumably join Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah in attack, allowing Georginio Wijnaldum – whose best Liverpool performances have come against top-four rivals – to join Henderson and Can.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will be needed in the games to come, particularly in Europe where Klopp will continue to rotate.
Daniel Sturridge will have more opportunities to revive the form that helped secure Liverpool’s Champions League place at the end of last season, and Ben Woodburn must surely be promoted soon.
Klopp has handled Woodburn impeccably so far and Wales have benefited most, but having tasted the highest level for his country this is a tricky period for the teenager. He will be craving another taste of such high octane occasions – this time for his club – rather than having to settle for under 23 football for the next few months. Liverpool’s early exit from the League Cup was potentially damaging to players such as Woodburn. Mané’s bad luck should put more fire in the belly of the youngster in training to make sure Klopp can no longer ignore him in the Premier League or Europe.
Klopp said he would learn from the mistakes of last season when Mané was unavailable. Last January Mané went to the Africa Cup of Nations with Liverpool still in both cups and still in the title race. He returned a month later with his side out of all three.
The signing of Salah was designed to ensure Liverpool were not too compromised should Mané be missing again.
The despondent reaction to Mané’s injuries demonstrates how few are convinced Liverpool have enough to cope. Those entrusted with a Liverpool shirt over the next six weeks should use that as extra motivation to prove this understandable cynicism wrong.