Klopp's big regret? Jota absence hit Liverpool as hard as Van Dijk's during horror campaign

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It was the game Liverpool had waited for: a low-pressure fixture with nothing riding on it except pride.

A chance, in the midst of this most gruelling of seasons, for Jurgen Klopp to rest and rotate, to make wholesale changes without fear of criticism or reprisal.

As it turned out, though, the Reds’ Champions League trip to Midtjylland in December proved costly. They would be left feeling the effects of that ‘dead rubber’ in Denmark for months afterwards.

When assessing Liverpool’s struggles in this campaign, it is hard to look past the visit to Everton in October as the day everything changed.

But while it is true that Virgil van Dijk’s injury was a blow from which Klopp’s side have never recovered, it was the loss of Diogo Jota, seven weeks later, which really accelerated the Reds’ decline.

The Portugal international had made a flying start to life on Merseyside, following his £45 million ($63m) move from Wolves in September.

With nine goals in his first 17 appearances, including a brilliant European hat-trick away to Atalanta, the 24-year-old had done what seemed impossible for so long – provided a genuine, high-quality alternative to Klopp’s long-established front three.

Indeed, by the time Liverpool headed to Midtjylland, many were suggesting Jota - bright, confident and clinical with his finishing - had already nudged ahead of the misfiring Roberto Firmino in the Anfield pecking order.

Diogo Jota Liverpool GFX

Then came the injury, a knee ligament problem picked up in the final moments of a nondescript 1-1 draw at the MCH Arena.

Momentum checked, for the player and, soon enough, for the team as well.

Jota would not return to action until March 4. Without him, Liverpool played 15 Premier League games and won only five. They were title favourites at Christmas, but they are nowhere now. Even a Europa League spot could be beyond them at this stage.

On Monday, they face Wolves at Molineux. Jota is expected to start against his former club, and given the promise of his performance in the Champions League win over RB Leipzig on Wednesday, that can only be good news for Klopp.

Certainly, Liverpool looked a lot more like Liverpool in that game in Budapest. With Fabinho in midfield, and with Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak impressive at centre-back, there was a solidity and a cohesion, both of which have been sorely lacking in recent weeks.

The threat was back, too. With Jota back alongside Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, Klopp’s team looked a lot more like their old selves in that regard. Had it not been for some decent goalkeeping and some careless finishing, they would have wiped the floor with the Bundesliga title contenders.

Still, it will have pleased Klopp immensely to see his three forwards combine for the opening goal of the night, with Mane dropping deep to play Jota through the middle, Jota showing admirable awareness to feed Salah, and Salah finishing expertly for his 25th goal of the season.

Salah Jota Mane Liverpool GFX

It was Jota’s last act; he was replaced by Divock Origi immediately after, with the Belgian setting up Mane for the second.

“He was a bit knackered afterwards, which is normal,” Klopp revealed on Saturday. “But now he should be fine again. It’s really important we have him back, for plenty of reasons.”

He would never admit it, but how Klopp must regret that decision to start Jota against Midtjylland.

He had not started the previous game - a 4-0 win over Wolves, as it happens – but his importance to the team was already well-established. Giving him 87 minutes on a heavy pitch in an inconsequential fixture was ill-advised, even without the benefit of hindsight.

“It was a big miss,” Klopp admitted this weekend. “The moment he got injured, he was in a really good moment, which then makes it even worse.”

Liverpool had initially feared Jota’s lay-off could be even longer, only for a scan to reveal no need for surgery. As it was, he missed the best part of three months. The fact he still has three more goals than Firmino, and only three fewer than Mane, tells its own story.

“What does he bring? It’s quality,” says Klopp. “He can play all three positions up front - he already played them for us, and on a really high level. That helps us.

“He makes us stronger, which is really good.”

Jota Klopp Liverpool quote GFX

With Firmino carrying a knee injury – he has not featured in the last two games, and was not in the training pictures released by the club over the weekend – then Jota will be needed at Wolves, for sure. Longer term, too, he has the chance to keep the Brazilian out of the side.

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Liverpool will target at least one new attacker in the summer, regardless of how this season ends for them. There is an acceptance that Klopp needs to freshen up his squad, and that the likes of Origi, Xherdan Shaqiri and Takumi Minamino simply are not capable of becoming regular starters.

No such concerns exist over Jota. Six months in, he has already made his presence firmly felt on Merseyside - and the best is yet to come.

If only Klopp had given him the night off in Denmark, eh?