For Danny Ings it promises to be an emotional afternoon. Eighteen months after leaving Anfield, the Southampton striker returns on Saturday. It's been quite the journey since.
Ings arrives as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous forwards. Only Jamie Vardy and Sergio Aguero have scored more goals than the 26-year-old this season. After the dark days of injury, those long hours and the draining recovery sessions, this is the reward. An England recall beckons if he keeps up his current form.
He’s certainly guaranteed a warm reception from Liverpool supporters this weekend. Ings may have only made 25 appearances in three seasons on Merseyside, scoring four goals, but he is remembered fondly. He has friends in the dressing room and well-wishers in the stands.
He can expect a bear hug from Jurgen Klopp, for sure. The Reds boss never got to see the best of Ings, who managed just three starts in two-and-a-half years under the German.
Not his fault, of course. Ings had scored the final goal of the Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool - at Goodison Park against Everton, no less – but in his first training session under Klopp, days after making his senior England debut in a World Cup qualifier in Lithuania, his world would change. He turned sharply and felt a crunch in his knee. He had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, and would not play again for seven months.
If that rehabilitation was tough, what followed was brutal. Five months after making hs comeback, Ings came off the bench at Anfield in a League Cup fourth round tie against Tottenham. It was the night Trent Alexander-Arnold made his senior Reds bow.
Liverpool won 2-0, but a few moments from the end, Ings collided with Spurs defender Kevin Wimmer near the halfway line. It was a nothing moment, and yet it changed everything. It damaged the cartilage in the same knee that had previously been reconstructed. Another, even more gruelling, spell on the sidelines followed.
Ings credits Liverpool’s medical team, led by physio Matt Konopinski, who now works under Steven Gerrard at Rangers, for his recovery. “They saved me,” he told the Daily Mail this week.
Ings would not play competitively for 11 months, in which time he would basically have to learn to run again. He visited John Moores University, as well as a specialist athletics centre in Manchester, learning about running mechanics. Konopinski and his team supported him at every step.
“The effort they put into me, without that detail - that is the reason I am back in this shape now,” Ings says.
Klopp had wanted him to stay at Liverpool. Ings made 14 appearances in the 2017-18 season, but was left out of the squad for the Champions League final in Kiev, with Dominic Solanke preferred. Reluctantly, he accepted that if he was to return to the top level, he would have to leave Anfield.
“It hurt,” he admitted, “but I just knew I had to go and make a name for myself and be the player I wanted to be.”
Southampton was an ideal solution. Ings grew up in Netley, four miles from St Mary’s Stadium, and had been on Saints’ books as a teenager. It was, for a Hampshire lad, a dream homecoming.
An initial loan deal was agreed, with an obligation to make the move permanent for £20 million. Ings scored eight times last season, but crucially proved to himself that he could stay fit and perform in the Premier League. Under Ralph Hasenhuttl, as the main man of the team, he has moved up a level this term.
On Saturday he will play his 25th game of the season, matching his total from 2018-19. Not since his final year at Burnley, 2014-15, has he been able to manage such a workload.
That is credit to him, and the subtle, yet vital, changes he has made to his lifestyle; the personal chef, the pilates sessions, the help of Alex Parsons, a renowned personal trainer with whom he spent much of his summer.
Parsons, a former team-mate of Ings at Bournemouth, also worked with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as he battled back from his own devastating knee injury, and his effect on Ings is clear to see. The hamstring issues which blighted him last season are gone. His core strength and his flexibility have improved. He is now able to play games back-to-back, and rarely misses a training session.
“I feel I am in a better place mentally this year," Ings says. “I came back in pre-season better physically than when I arrived here.”
That is showing on the field. Ings had a slowish start to the season, scoring once in his first seven games, but has exploded since, with 15 in his next 20. He’s the Saints’ No.9; their talisman netted against Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester and Arsenal, as well as coming up with vital strikes against the likes of Norwich, Watford and Aston Villa. Improbably, given their start, Hasenhuttl’s side sit ninth in the table, just three points behind fifth-placed Manchester United.
"I'm here and enjoying my football again," Ings recently told Southampton’s official website.
"I feel absolutely loved by the fans and my team, so all of that helps. Any striker will tell you that when they're enjoying football and having fun, it brings out the best in you."
The expectation is that Ings, if fit, will be selected in the England squad for March’s friendlies with Italy and Denmark. Gareth Southgate is a fan, having managed him at Under-21 level, and with Vardy retired, and both Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane carrying injuries, the chance is there to put himself firmly in the frame for a Euro 2020 spot.
What a story that would be. Ings has certainly done the hard yards in his career; who could begrudge him a bit of good fortune this time around?