Belfast Telegraph

Rodgers backs Mignolet

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers insists Simon Mignolet's shaky performances are not a factor in the team's lack of confidence and has backed the under-fire goalkeeper's mental resilience.

The Belgium international has been criticised for lacking a commanding presence in his penalty area and for his poor distribution, while his mistake for the first Ludogorets goal in the Champions League in midweek only intensified calls for him to be replaced.

Mignolet has kept just two clean sheets in his last 24 appearances for the club and this season has looked less than convincing.

But with no real competition - second-choice Brad Jones has played just 23 matches in four and a half years - Rodgers is obliged to stick with Mignolet, the £10million replacement for Jose Reina two summers ago which was always seen as a downgrade and was unpopular with fans.

"It is never easy. However, it (criticism) comes. Deserved or not, you won't like it but he is fine. I had a good chat with Simon today," said Rodgers.

"The club paid a lot of money for Simon to come in and he has saved us in games in my time here.

"His performance is like the team; we all need to be better collectively.

"We are losing games and not playing so well so it (criticism) happens and the focus on you at a club like Liverpool is magnified.

"He is strong enough. For us you have to embrace it, you have to be able to cope with the spotlight whether it is good or bad because it is always going to be there.

"Sometimes it won't always go your way and sometimes you have to cope with it when it doesn't.

"The team gains confidence from each other; it is about collective responsibility not just one player, and if we are going to succeed it will be about every player not just one."

Mignolet can expect to be tested against Stoke at Anfield on Saturday as Liverpool look to end a run of three successive league defeats which has dropped them to 12th in the table.

The Northern Irishman is himself under pressure and is second favourite to be the next manager sacked. However, he is happy to absorb that burden in order to deflect it from his players.

"They (bookmakers) obviously expect me to lose my job," he added.

"It is football. A few months ago I was manager of the year and now I am favourite to get the sack.

"In football it is very short-termism thinking but all you can do is focus on the immediate job and focus on what you can control.

"I just want them to concentrate on the football and performance level. It is my responsibility to take that (pressure) from the players."

A 2-2 draw in Bulgaria on Wednesday exposed Liverpool's vulnerability at set-pieces once again and meant that the team returned home without the confidence boost they needed.

It was the sort of substance over style performance not usually associated with a Rodgers side but the manager is hopeful that the draw against Ludogorets could kick-start their campaign.

"We are hoping our season has really begun the other night but it will only count if we take it into tomorrow's game," he said.

"Everything has been hunky dory for 18 months but it is a different hand we have been dealt this year, a different deck of cards.

"I said to the players the other night what has gone before has gone.

"We got the result the other night: a good performance, we were competitive, the structure of the team was good and we will take it into a difficult game against Stoke.

"Now it is even more important these mental characteristics come out in the team, which I know they clearly have."

Rodgers is expected to make changes again despite the players selected for the Champions League in midweek ending a four-match losing streak.

Dejan Lovren is likely to return in central defence at the expense of Kolo Toure but a bigger decision is whether to continue Steven Gerrard in the number 10 position or drop him back into a defensive role at the expense of Lucas Leiva.

Rodgers said striker Mario Balotelli is not quite fit so Rickie Lambert, who has scored in each of his last two matches, continues up front.

Stoke manager Mark Hughes has every intention of adding to Rodgers' misery.

A run of four straight defeats this month - including three in the Barclays Premier League - was finally ended with that midweek draw.

Next up for Rodgers and the Reds on Saturday is what appears to be a tough Anfield clash with a Stoke side that has already won away at Manchester City and Tottenham this season.

Hughes feels some of the criticism heaped on Rodgers has been unfair given he has been without two players this season who scored 55 goals between them for Liverpool last term.

With Luis Suarez sold to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge out for the last three months and not expected to return until the new year due to a thigh injury, it is no wonder Rodgers is feeling the heat.

"When people sense there is a little bit of pressure building then everybody jumps on the bandwagon and tries to add to it, which is unfair," Hughes said.

"But that happens to all of us. It's not something Brendan is unaware of. He understands how it works.

"But when you lose the services of two strikers such as Suarez and Sturridge, then it's going to impact on you.

"There were only three players in the Premier League last season who scored more than 20 goals, and Liverpool had two of them.

"So that shows where their season was built - on the back of two outstanding strikers.

"They haven't had their services this year so it's going to take a big part of their game away from them."

Naturally, for Hughes it is something to exploit, even if it means piling the pressure on Rodgers.

"They've a big squad that can manage any number of games they have ahead of them," the Welshman added.

"I saw a picture in the paper the other day that showed the strength of their bench, worth something like £100million, so they do have resources they can use.

"The focus that seems to be on them at the moment is maybe something they need to deal with, and if we can add to that, then we will try to do that.

"But they're an outstanding team, with great players, and although it's a tough test for us we've proven this year we can go anywhere and get positive results, so that's our intention again."

The trip to Liverpool sparks a tough stretch of fixtures for Stoke as they also face Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in the run-up to Christmas.

Despite that, Hughes said: "We're looking forward to them.

"The big teams are always the test, but we're playing well, despite last week's defeat to Burnley when we didn't play poorly, we just made mistakes, which can happen.

"But confidence-wise we're in very good shape, and that's off the back of a very good performance against Spurs the week before where we won comfortably in my view.

"So we can go to the bigger teams, the teams with more resources and in terms of playing staff, and give a good account of ourselves, as we've already proven this season."

A virus that had swept through the training ground this week appears to have eased as three players off sick on Thursday all reported in for training on Friday, with no new casualties.

Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and defenders Phil Bardsley and Geoff Cameron are back in contention.

Two other defenders in Erik Pieters and Marc Wilson are also available after missing the loss to Burnley with calf and hamstring injuries respectively.

Hughes, though, is without on-loan midfielder Victor Moses who is sidelined for six to eight weeks with a thigh injury.

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