Liverpool enter their tricky period and how they respond will determine title legitimacy

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Jurgen Klopp’s defensive prowess in batting away suggestions he disrespected the FA Cup were so resolute, the Liverpool boss could probably operate in his side’s back four.

And that is no joke because the German might actually be required. The Reds are suffering from an injury crisis at centre-back after Dejan Lovren limped out of Liverpool’s limp 2-1 defeat to Wolves on Monday night.

The Croatian was on the pitch for mere seconds before signalling to the bench with a hamstring complaint, and at best he will now be sidelined for this weekend’s trip to Brighton.

The cruel double irony of this predicament is that his injury actually justified Klopp’s decision to rest eight key players for the trip after a testing period of exhaustive fixtures – Lovren was meant to make it nine before Adam Lallana’s late pullout forced a reshuffle.

Lovren’s replacement on Monday, the cultured 16-year-old Ki-Jana Hoever impressed having made history as the club’s youngest player in the competition.

His poised interception of Helder Costa before elegantly striding into midfield to then release Mohamed Salah in threatening space served up a preview of what’s to come from the teenager.

Yet while Liverpool supporters were busy talking up the Dutchkid as the second-coming of Virgil van Dijk, they will have failed to hear the alarm bells ringing as Lovren joined Joe Gomez (ankle) and Joel Matip (collarbone) on the centre-back casualty list.

The fact Liverpool’s cover for Van Dijk and Gomez has, well, failed to cover and remain consistently fit throughout the season is a concern for Klopp considering from a numerical standpoint, four centre-backs should be more than enough.

Despite this, the Liverpool boss irately shot down suggestions he will invade the market to recruit a new defender after the Wolves defeat, saying: “The only country that asks a question like this is England. Everything is sorted with buying players.

“We have four centre-halves. Three, maybe, two-and-a-half are injured so we’ll have to try and come through in the moment.”

Klopp’s visible frustration is perhaps more directed at the circumstance he finds himself rather than in English football’s love affair with the winter window.

However, the emotion he should be emitting is concern. To borrow a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson “attack win a game, defence win a title” and what has separated Liverpool’s 2018/19 title conquest from the 2013/14 iteration is their well-built backline.

Through 21 games a miserly 10 goals have been conceded – the next best being Manchester City’s 17 – with their sole defeat arriving at the Etihad Stadium on January 3rd.
Van Dijk naturally is apportioned a large slice of credit for their newfound success in defence but even he can’t operate alone.

Hoever is talented and could be great, but he is also very raw and underdeveloped with James Milner virtually acting as babysitter having frequently dropped in to help cover the teenager.

Fabinho was his partner but even the versatile Brazilian looked uncomfortable with the task. Gomez and Matip are tipped to return for the visit of Leicester before the month closes but before then there is Brighton and Crystal Palace.

Granted, the schedule has been kind, even if the injury curse hasn’t but having lost two on the bounce, there is pressure on the leaders who have struggled in January under Klopp in the league with a record of four wins, four draws and four losses since 2015.

Indeed, City have already come through their testing period and remain in the hunt. There is a sense Liverpool are entering theirs and how this wounded side, both mentally from defeats, and physically in terms of personnel, react on Saturday will gauge their legitimacy to the Premier League crown.

The four point gap looks big on paper, but then so did having four centre-backs.

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