Resurgent Liverpool rocked by Skrtel blow
After the euphoria of a win which reaffirmed their potential to mount a title challenge came the news Liverpool had feared yesterday.
Martin Skrtel may face months out of the game after a scan showed he had damaged his posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee when he fell awkwardly late into the win at Manchester City on Sunday.
The precise damage will be known when Skrtel sees a specialist today and though he was able to limp out of the Liverpool dressing room at Eastlands without crutches on Sunday, Rafael Benitez appears to be without a regular who has grown into his role at the club since arriving from Zenit St Petersburg in January. Sunday's match winner Dirk Kuyt described yesterday how Skrtel's departure on a stretcher, clutching an oxygen mask, had affected Liverpool's players: "It looked very ugly and I think we all wanted to win it for him," the Dutchman said – and his words reflected the genuine esprit de corps which lies behind Liverpool's best start in 12 years.
The side have come from behind to win four times now – at Middlesbrough, Marseilles and Manchester City and against Manchester United at home – a statistic that has more to do with a new-found fighting spirit than a predilection for clubs beginning with the same letter. Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes have both recently identified a scrapping characteristic in Liverpool which, for some fans, is resonant of the Souness/Dalglish era in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It also helps when the same core of players are running out together each week and Benitez is certainly rotating far less, settling in the past three games for a line up which has had Kuyt and the impressive Albert Riera either side of Torres, with Steven Gerrard behind. The manager's stated belief that Gerrard has matured in the past 12 months has persuaded him to allow him a permanent central berth.
As Liverpool's domestic and European seasons were unravelling this time last year, there was a sense that some players did not understand the roles they were being asked to undertake and Rafael Benitez's change of system in mid-match at Goodison, last October, smacked of organised chaos. No longer.
The absence of Skrtel delivers a moment of reckoning for another central defender, Daniel Agger. The 23-year-old told Danish television last week that he had no intentions of leaving Liverpool, despite suggestions that he was unsettled by his struggle to secure a regular place since his nine-month lay off with a foot injury. Agger is also understood to have told Rafael Benitez that he did not need a conversation to clear up his future but his defensive display against Crewe in the Carling Cup was unconvincing. Sami Hyypia, indignant when left out of Benitez's Champions League squad, also has a point to prove now.
Though Benitez has been characteristically reluctant to speak of anything but the next game, Kuyt hinted at Liverpool's fixation on recovering the league championship trophy missing from Anfield since 1990 when he spoke yesterday of the need to keep up with Chelsea. "It was vital to keep pace with Chelsea before the internationals," Kuyt said. "Now we can leave with a good feeling. We try to make a statement every week. Every three games we have a big game. We had Everton and PSV last week, and our target is just to win every game and try to be there by the end of the season. We've already had one international break and we came back in our first game after it and beat Man Utd, so I wouldn't say it comes at a bad time."
Wigan are next up after the break but the real test comes a week later, at Stamford Bridge.