iogo Jota was man of the match when Wolves played at Anfield last December, even if he did miss a couple of chances that might have allowed his side to claim something from the game. As it was, they lost 1-0, had a goal disallowed through VAR intervention and probably left Merseyside without realising Jürgen Klopp had become a fan of one of their best players.
Jota will be lining up for the home side when the teams meet again on Sunday – or at least he will if Liverpool stick to the same starting lineup they used against Ajax in midweek. That would mean leaving the enormously talented Roberto Firmino on the bench once again, which many think a sensible compromise given Jota is already into double figures for goals this season. Others, including Klopp, would regret the omission of a player who frequently brings the best out of his teammates.
With Raúl Jiménez long-term injured and Jota departed, Wolves lack goalscorers and will struggle to justify the confidence of anyone who backed them earlier in the season to end Liverpool’s long unbeaten run at Anfield.
Klopp, meanwhile, cheerfully admits to having created an area of uncertainty by adding an extra player to his already impressive front three. “At the moment the forward line is the only one of our lines where we have more players than we can use at one time,” he said.
“In all the other parts of the team it is more of a question of choosing the players who can still walk, but we have no injuries at the front and so every week I have a tough decision.”
As everyone must know by now, Liverpool’s injuries have piled up this season and Klopp is at a loss to understand why the five substitute precaution brought in to help deal with last season’s hectic schedule during the pandemic has now been ditched, despite most Premier League managers believing it should be brought back. The Liverpool manager says the situation is going to get worse in the traditionally intense period between now and the new year, with every club playing every three or four days, and not just the ones involved in European competition.
“I’m worried, like all coaches are worried, about player welfare,” he said. “I am not just talking about fatigue and physical injury, but the toll this whole situation is taking on mental health. My players are under immense pressure at home as well as on the pitch. I know people will say they are well paid but they are still human beings in a difficult position.”
The presence of around 2,000 spectators on Sunday will hopefully be a sign that normality is beginning its recovery, a bit like Trent Alexander-Arnold on the training ground, though no one imagines that stadiums packed to capacity will be returning in a hurry.
As a football romantic, as well as a Liverpool manager, Klopp misses the old atmosphere more than most. “I love a full stadium, the noise, the energy, everything,” he explained. “For me there’s no other sporting event quite like a football match, nothing else can compare.
“When you know the sort of atmosphere a big crowd at Anfield can create you also know that 2,000 people is not going to be quite the same; that is not the sort of crowd that will be able to push us through a difficult game, for instance – we will have to do that by ourselves. But it will be nice to have people back and if this is the beginning of the end of empty stadiums it is certainly very welcome.”
The empty stadiums are a part of Liverpool’s title win last season that Klopp will look back on without sentiment. “Everything is more difficult without fans in the grounds,” he said. “We coped very well with the change last season, but as footballers it is our job to cope. Our task is to deliver results and performances whatever the circumstances.
“Sometimes you can encounter a hostile crowd at an away game and you have to ignore it and concentrate on playing your football. An empty ground is not quite the same thing, but it is another challenge that must be overcome. You have to create your own atmosphere, your own intensity.
“Last season the boys did it, this season it is still too early to tell. I don’t think this is going to be a season for setting targets or breaking records. All the teams are just trying to get through it and play the best football they can, but it will be clear by Christmas that a big squad is going to be an important factor.
“Partly for that reason Chelsea are looking good at the moment, they can change their team unbelievably from one game to the next, but we can all worry about that later. This weekend we only have to worry about Wolves.”