No Firmino? Here's how Klopp can get Liverpool's forwards firing again as title race hots up

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The Reds have looked short of inspiration in recent weeks - but back Salah and Co. to deliver in crunch Watford clash

Jurgen Klopp saw the question coming a mile off – or so he thought.

His inquisitor had barely started it when the Liverpool boss cut him off.

“Jurgen, you’ve had two 0-0 draws in a row….”

“Against Bayern Munich and Manchester United, yes!”

In fairness, the question was actually supposed to be about the Reds’ defensive strength rather than their attacking worries. It was swiftly pointed out to Klopp that, in fact, his side had kept three successive clean sheets.

“Look at that!” he laughed. “In one question, such a turnaround!”

The fact that Klopp was poised to defend his forwards, though, is instructive. The German claims he doesn’t read what is written about his side – “I just don’t have the time!” he told Goal last summer – but he always knows what the narratives are. He is well-briefed by his media officer, and adept at shutting down questions, usually with humour.

Where Liverpool are concerned, he has watched the debate shift significantly. His weekly, often twice-weekly, press conferences at Melwood used to centre around defensive themes. How, he would be asked, could he stop his team leaking soft goals? Could he fix their set-piece issues? Did it not annoy him that his team could be so devastating going one way, so brittle going the other?

This season, the dynamic has altered. With Virgil van Dijk in situ, the doubts over Liverpool’s backline have receded. With just 15 goals conceded in 27 games, they have the best defensive record in the Premier League by some distance. It is the foundation on which their championship challenge has been built.

You can’t have everything though and, as Liverpool’s defence is lauded, now it is their attack which is coming under scrutiny. As the title race hots up, the worry is that the Reds’ main men have gone cold.

Harsh? Certainly a touch, given that Mohamed Salah is the Premier League’s joint-leading goalscorer and that Sadio Mane is one shy of equalling his best ever (league) return in England. Those two, plus Roberto Firmino, have 38 of Liverpool’s 59 league goals, having contributed 57 of their 84 last term.

Roberto Firmino Sadio Mane Mohamed Salah Liverpool West Ham Premier League 120818

And, even more importantly, with 11 games remaining, the Merseysiders are top of the table this time around - a fact that seemed lost on a lot of people in the aftermath of Sunday's stalemate at Old Trafford.

Why, then, do the questions remain? Why, Klopp may ask, does there seem to be such a lack of faith in his side?

The numbers aren’t that bad – since smashing Arsenal 5-1 on December 29, Liverpool have scored 12 times in eight games in all competitions, including four against Crystal Palace and three versus Bournemouth. Salah, Mane and Firmino have been responsible for 10 of those.

But these are tense times, and a run of four draws in five games can only add to the edginess surrounding the Reds as they bid to end that 29-year wait for a title. And, while every discussion in this era feels overblow and overhyped – see the ‘storm’ surrounding Kepa Arrizabalaga, for example – there is no doubt that, as a team, Liverpool have not been attacking as Klopp would like them to of late.

“The games we had were difficult,” he said on Tuesday. “Bayern defended us like we were a mixture of Barcelona and Real Madrid! And Manchester United….that was just a strange game.”

Still, he would expect players of such talent, in games of such importance, to produce more than they did. Liverpool managed just one shot on target at United, after mustering just two against Bayern. Their work in the final third, so often sharp, swift and imaginative, looked laboured, tentative, aimless. In both games, the goalless draw looked nailed-on long before the final whistle.

The sight of Salah being replaced by Divock Origi with 11 minutes to go at Old Trafford spoke volumes. The Egyptian, with 20 goals in all competitions, is so often the go-to man, but his afternoon was wretched, littered with poor touches, loose passes and one appalling free-kick. His record at Anfield has been staggering, but he has just one goal against fellow top-six sides this season. That was a penalty in that Arsenal drubbing. He is yet to score away from home in the Champions League this season, too.

The likelihood is that he will move into a central striking role against Watford on Wednesday night. Firmino is unlikely to be risked having sustained an ankle injury against United – though Klopp says the Brazilian will have “a big chance” for Sunday’s trip to Everton – and the claims of both Origi and Daniel Sturridge are flimsy at best. Between them, the understudy strikers have one Premier League goal since September. Liverpool need to improve on that pair in the summer transfer market.

Liverpool's next five fixtures

Salah’s record as a No.9 is better, though of late he has returned to the right-wing station from which he wreaked such havoc last season. It is likely that Xherdan Shaqiri, a different type of wide player, will occupy that spot on Wednesday evening, with Salah tasked with stretching the Hornets with his speed and movement from a central position. Naby Keita, meanwhile, may add a touch of imagination to a midfield which looked prosaic at the weekend.

“Mo has the ability to create from the inside,” assistant manager Pep Lijnders told Goal recently. “To have him in the last line as high as we can, it’s great for him. He’s closer to the goal, he can use his speed more, he’s more where we want him to be.”

Where Liverpool want him to be on Wednesday night is on the scoresheet, smiling again, laying waste to defences. He scored four in this fixture last season, and has six in three appearances against Watford. He likes the sight of the Hornets.

For Liverpool, the task is simple. Keep on winning and they will be champions, despite the doubts and the questions and the narratives. Eleven games to make history.

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“It’s a pure opportunity,” Klopp said on Tuesday. “And we have to use it on the front foot.”

Don’t bet against his side finding top gear at Anfield, then. Starved for a week, Salah and Co. are ready to feast again.

If they do, the skies over Anfield will look a whole lot brighter.

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