Skrtel out to banish ghosts of Liverpool's past City horror shows
The Manchester City turf has been an inauspicious place for Liverpool's Martin Skrtel. He was carried from it on a stretcher, three years ago, clutching an oxygen mask as he contended with the agony of posterior cruciate ligament damage in his right knee.
The damage inflected on him by Sergio Aguero as his side fell to a 3-0 Premier League defeat on the same ground last Tuesday was briefer but no less brutal.
Still, Skrtel has good reason to breeze into the stadium tonight for a Carling Cup semi-final first leg Liverpool are desperate to win, seven years after last lifting silverware and 17 years since their last Wembley appearance in a victorious League Cup final against Bolton Wanderers. The timing of last week's dismantling by Aguero was especially unwelcome, when Jamie Carragher covets taking his central defensive jersey back. But it is four years tomorrow since Skrtel arrived at Melwood as a gauche 23-year-old promising that his English would improve, and no one around Anfield challenges the assertion that the best period of form in his career has been integral to the one part of Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool which really is working.
That January day on which Rafael Benitez presented him as a new acquisition ended with the strains of Echo and the Bunnymen's "Nothing Ever Lasts Forever" issuing around Liverpool's St George's Hall to mark the start of the city's Capital of Culture year, and those words have certainly seemed true of the Slovakian's Anfield career, at times.
A mere 31 minutes of his full debut had elapsed when he played a full and active part in the brief moment of fame enjoyed by Havant & Waterlooville's Alfie Potter. If deflecting Potter's shot over Pepe Reina was not bad enough, it gave the non-league side the lead at Anfield for a second time. "Ignominy" does not begin to describe it.
"After that game I just wanted to try and show that I was good enough to play for Liverpool," he reflects now. "I went back to my hotel and I knew it was not my best game. I knew I had to go away and work hard in training. I knew the people were talking about me. That I wasn't good enough for Liverpool and that the club had paid a lot of money for me. For me it was important that Rafa said to me, 'don't worry about this game. Look ahead to the next game, I will give you a chance and you have to show you are a better player'."
Skrtel's response reflected well on Benitez's decision to pay Zenit St Petersburg £6.5m – a record Liverpool outlay on a defender. One errant pass to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Champions League victory over Internazionale at San Siro was the only glitch against grander opponents than Potter in the months to follow.
And though he has not always looked his side's most accomplished force – the clash of heads with Carragher which broke his jaw in 2009 had a curiously detrimental affect on his form when he returned – he was the only Liverpool player to be present in every minute of Liverpool's last Premier League campaign. This season, his form has seemed to take him to a different level. "Yes maybe I can say this is the best period in my career," he says.
This is, in part, down to the work of first-team coach Steve Clarke. "We work a lot in training on defending with Steve and that has probably helped not only me but all the guys who play at the back," he says. "Since Kenny [Dalglish] and Steve has come in the atmosphere changed around the team. Everything is much better now. If I feel the confidence from the manager, that is important for me and maybe that is the reason." The grounds for his confidence may be subtler. Skrtel and Daniel Agger provide good balance as a central defensive pair and there is a sense that Agger, a less forbidding partner than Carragher, is a partner he feels less intimidated by.
"I enjoy playing alongside him, the partnership with him and the understanding on the pitch is working. It is very good and I hope it will continue," he says of his partnership with the Dane, who, after long injury problems and doubts about his desire to stay, has also settled into some of his own best form. Some days have been better than others this season. Pitched in at right back, he was tormented by Gareth Bale and dismissed in the 4-0 defeat at Tottenham. Yet his part in delivering Liverpool the joint best defensive record in the Premier League – with City – has made this a painful season for Carragher, the odd man out. Between Liverpool's Carling Cup quarter-final win against Chelsea in November and last Friday's FA Cup win against Oldham, Carragher has managed only seven minutes of action – and even that was in central midfield.
Skrtel feels Carragher's breath on his shoulder. "Of course, we know we have to work and play well if we want to keep our place in the team. Carra is a great player you know, he has played here for so long and it is a question for the manager who is going to play," he says. But it also says something that Liverpool fans will look for his name on the team-sheet tonight. "It's hard for me to say [that]," he reflects. "But I know what you mean. I can see people look at me in a different way now to how they were before and I am happy about that. I could see in their reaction two years ago that they didn't think I was consistent. They were undecided. I hope for the last year that I am good enough and that I can play for Liverpool."