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The centre-back has re-emerged as a key part of the Reds' starting XI, after appearing close to a departure from the club following the signings of Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho

EXCLUSIVE 
By Tom Maston

After starting just four Premier League games since the turn of the year, it seemed Martin Skrtel’s time at Liverpool was on the verge of coming to an end this summer.

The arrival of three new central defenders and reported interest from former club Zenit St Petersburg only intensified rumours that the Slovakia international would be departing the club. Most supporters who visited Anfield with any regularity seemed to have come to terms with losing the 28-year-old.

Six months have now passed, though, and after performing a remarkable turnaround in personal fortunes, Skrtel has become a key member of the Liverpool side that has started this campaign so brightly.

Appearing from the start in all but Liverpool's first two league fixtures, the big defender has become Brendan Rodgers’ mainstay in defence, with new faces Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho fighting it out with Daniel Agger to play alongside him.

Skrtel has certainly come a long way since he struggled to deal with previously unknown Oldham Athletic striker Matt Smith during an FA Cup defeat in January - and he puts that down to plenty of positive thinking and hard work on the training ground.

"It was very difficult for me because I wasn’t starting or even playing for almost five months. That’s very difficult for any player," he told Goal at the launch of Need for Speed Rivals on PS4.

"But on the sidelines I was thinking that’s part of being a footballer. During pre-season, I tried to forget about the last season and focus on this one.

"The biggest target for me was to get back into the starting XI. I was working very hard and trying to do everything possible to get back into the team. I am in the starting XI at the moment and I will try to stay there as long as I can."

The signings of Toure and Sakho, along with youngster Tiago Ilori, have meant there is plenty of competition for places at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, and Skrtel believes the amount of quality players in his position has led to an improvement in that area overall.

"At the moment, we have five or six centre-backs and any of us could play because they are great players.

"I think competition is good for the team and also for yourself as a player. It pushes you to work hard during training and I try to show the manager that I am the one who can start the games. It can only be a good thing for us, then it’s a question for the manager as to who is going to start."

After signing for the Reds in January 2008 and helping them to a second-place finish in his first full season, Skrtel has been part of a side that has failed to finish any higher than sixth in the table in their last four campaigns.

But under Rodgers, the five-time European champions are beginning to show consistent form again - and Skrtel believes the time the manager has been afforded has been paramount to their upturn in fortunes.

"The players and the manager know each other much better now," he explained. "Last season, when the new staff came in, it was hard because when you bring something new in you need time before it starts to work.

"I think everybody has to adapt. He came in with his own ideas and a new style of play and it was something new for us. We needed to learn it and get used to it. That’s why last season things didn’t work well because we tried to change so many things.

"In a few games, we lost points because of the changes. But we have got used to it and at the moment it is working and we are playing well, which is perfect for us."

With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge – who Skrtel believes are the best strike partnership in England  at present – stealing most of the headlines with their goalscoring feats, it is easy to forget the work of Skrtel and his defensive colleagues in the Reds' excellent recent run.

But if Liverpool are to continue their title challenge, it may be his continuing re-emergence that proves most vital in their pursuit of silverware.

Martin Skrtel was speaking at the launch of Need for Speed Rivals. The latest instalment in the ever-popular franchise is the only driving game launching on PS4. Need for Speed Rivals is also available on Xbox One and all other formats. Watch the trailer here and let the rivalry commence!

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