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No Salah, Mane or Keita - AFCON's January move to cause Liverpool major headache

18:00 GMT 15/01/2020
Sadio Mane Mohamed Salah Liverpool 2019-20
The Reds are set to be hit the hardest at the start of 2021 with three of their key players likely to be in Cameroon rather than on Merseyside

Where would Liverpool be without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane?

We will find out next season, it seems, after the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot) delivered the news Reds fans were dreading. 

The 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, it revealed, will kick off on January 9, with the final to be played on February 6. The dates, Fecafoot explained, had been changed at their own request “for weather reasons.”

Bad news for Jurgen Klopp, who now faces the prospect of being without Salah and Mane, as well as midfielder Naby Keita, for up to a month of the Premier League campaign. The Reds boss’ reaction, one imagines, will have been one of dismay.

Klopp is already of the opinion that elite players are expected to play too much football, and has regularly used press conferences to plead with the footballing authorities to revise the international calendar.

“We cannot carry on like this,” he said in November, and earlier this month he revealed that he had voiced his concerns to UEFA at a meeting of coaches back in August. “Like always in life,” he said, “it is about quality, not quantity.”

The former Borussia Dortmund boss has also made it clear that he believes both FA Cup replays and the two-legged aspect of the Carabao Cup semi-finals should be scrapped, but those demands continue to fall on deaf ears.

Liverpool suffered the last time AFCON was held in January, back in 2017. Then, they lost Mane for seven games, of which they won only one.

They had started the year second in the Premier League and competing in both the League Cup and the FA Cup. By the time the Senegal star returned, they were fourth in the table and had been knocked out of both competitions, their thin squad having been stretched without its most potent attacker.

Things have changed since then, of course. Liverpool have greater resources now, and are expected to strengthen their hand further in the transfer market this summer. By then, of course, they will almost certainly be Premier League champions, and they are strongly fancied to defend their Champions League crown too.

Some facts remain, though, and an extended period without either Salah or Mane, let alone both, would challenge Klopp’s team enormously. Throw in Keita, whose form has arrived in fits and starts largely due to injury, and you have something of a dilemma brewing.

They are not alone.

Arsenal could lose both Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Manchester City could be without Riyad Mahrez, while Leicester, Tottenham and Crystal Palace, among others, may also be heavily affected. Fans will be suddenly be taking a far greater interest in the upcoming AFCON qualifying matches, surely.

Whether this news forces the Premier League's hand in terms of a longer winter break remains to be seen. This season teams will be given one weekend off in February, though it is spread over a fortnight so television companies do not have to do without top-flight matches for an extended period.

The loss of a bunch of star players could accelerate a process that would end in allowing the whole league to take a breather together following the busy festive period, but quite how that would go down with stakeholders is up for debate. The Premier League insist that their schedules are decided in three-year cycles, but this sudden change may yet force them into action.

How will the news affect Liverpool’s strategy going forward, one wonders? Plenty would argue that, despite the Reds’ lofty league position and remarkable form over the past 18 months, sourcing cover for their star forwards remains a priority.

Salah and Mane, as well as Roberto Firmino, are remarkably durable, but the drop-off in quality when they are absent is clear. Would Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri, both of whom have been linked with transfers away in recent weeks, be enough to sustain them next January?

Takumi Minamino, the highly-rated Japan international, is a step in the right direction in that regard. Seen as a player who can fill multiple positions across the attacking line, the 24-year-old arrived from Salzburg this month and is expected to feature regularly during the second half of this campaign.

Beyond that, there are high hopes surrounding a trio of supremely-gifted teenagers at the club. Rhian Brewster, a 19-year-old striker, has been sent to Swansea City on loan to pick up senior experience, while both Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones, 16 and 18 respectively, remain with the first-team. Both are likely to play against Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup fourth round on January 26, although both, naturally, still have some way to go before they are considered regulars by Klopp.

The summer should prove an interesting one, with Liverpool widely expected to spend big in a bid to strengthen their hand further. Speculative links with the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Jadon Sancho aside, we can expect the Reds to seriously look at bringing in at least one high-class attacker in the close-season, although club sources admit that sourcing players capable of immediately coming in and improving the world’s best club side is a more difficult task than you might imagine.

Nonetheless, it needs to be done. It probably needed to be even before the AFCON bombshell, in all honesty.