By Charles Ong
While Saturday’s clash against Southampton yielded three points and Liverpool’s fourth league win of the season, the significance was far greater than that.
Crucially, it marked Lucas Leiva’s return from injury after a torrid year out of action, where he was cruelly denied a starting berth in the League Cup and FA Cup finals under ex-manager Kenny Dalglish’s final season in charge.
Lucas, who featured for 87 minutes against Southampton, displayed the composure of a top defensive midfielder and liberated the likes of Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen to play further forward, resulting in a prolonged spell of Liverpool’s dominance in the final third.
Such is the critical importance of the Brazilian to the Liverpool side that in his first game back from injury, he has already made more forward passes (45) than any other Premier League player has this season.
With the festive period of December looming, and with Liverpool having a run of six winnable fixtures, Lucas’ return to injury provides a timely boost to Brendan Rodgers’ plans as they aim to mount a top-four challenge.
Despite Liverpool’s poor start to the season, with the Reds having only a 27% league win rate, they find themselves a mere two points behind fellow contenders Arsenal, and seven points behind third-placed Chelsea. The hope is that the 1-0 victory against Southampton can act as a foundation for the coming fixtures against West Ham (A), Aston Villa (H), Fulham (H), Stoke (A), QPR (A), and Sunderland (H) – before Liverpool travel to Old Trafford on January 13 next year.
There is a level of optimism around Melwood that despite the threadbare nature of the squad, Liverpool are considered outside challengers for a top-four spot come May.
Despite the 1-0 score-line against Southampton, Liverpool should have had run out much more comfortable winners considering they dominated with 64% possession and had a staggering 23 shots on goal. However, they were left to rue some poor finishing and had to hang on for a gritty, narrow victory.
The inability to score was summed up by a very frustrated Luis Suarez, who tried to convert by flapping his hands at an incoming ball from Liverpool’s talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard, only to see himself receive a yellow card, leaving Liverpool striker-less for their upcoming away trip to West Ham United.
However, the positives remain – that Liverpool were once again the dominant side and there are signs that Brendan Rodgers’ team are headed in the right direction within the coming years.
In the short term, though, the return of Liverpool’s structurally most important player will be pivotal in Liverpool’s top-four quest, as it provides the necessary balance and stability required for Rodgers’ side to fulfil its maximum potential.