Liverpool’s midfield vs Chelsea: A selection headache at long last

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There was much to admire about Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Sheffield United, as the Reds made a welcome return to winning ways.

Adrian, Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak largely did well against a physical Blades attack, while Trent Alexander-Arnold looked somewhere close to his best again.

Gini Wijnaldum and Thiago purred in midfield, the front-three looked more vibrant as a unit, and of course, Curtis Jones was the star of the show.

One of the most heartwarming aspects was the sight of James Milner and Naby Keita returning to the fray after respective absences. Neither set the world alight, keeping things simple and helping prevent any hint of a Blades comeback, but all of a sudden, Liverpool have options.

A huge knock-on effect of this injury-ravaged season has been Jurgen Klopp being forced into overplaying individuals, such have been the lack of alternatives at his disposal.

Andy Robertson has been run into the ground, in particular – he has been a long way from this effervescent best of late – but Wijnaldum, Thiago and Jones have also showed signs of fatigue, in what is a demanding area of the pitch under Klopp.

With Fabinho and Jordan Henderson having to fill in at centre-back, and Milner and Keita unavailable, there hasn’t even been a debate over who starts in the middle of the park.

In an instant, however, Klopp now finds himself with a healthy selection dilemma ahead of a potentially defining match on Thursday evening.

Chelsea make the trip to Anfield with a one-point advantage over the Reds, as the battle to qualify for the Champions League intensifies by the week.

Man United and Leicester look far from unbeatable in second and third respectively, and with West Ham, Everton, Tottenham and Aston Villa all arguably in the mix, this looks set to be a thrilling next couple of months.

Klopp has to accept that his defence is in tatters for the remainder of the campaign, but that midfield area is now looking healthy again, as Liverpool look to avoid a fifth straight Anfield defeat.

The question is: who does the manager go with against Chelsea?

With Fabinho expected to return to the side, it would be a big surprise if he didn’t start in the centre-back role he has performed so admirably in all season.

There may be some calls for the Brazilian to finally go back to the No.6 position, but partnering either Phillips or Kabak has to be the call for a game of this magnitude.

That leaves five players tussling for three midfield berths, with the quintet all carrying compelling arguments for featuring prominently.

The Wijnaldum-Thiago-Jones triumvirate appears to be the most likely midfield, following such a dominant performance at the weekend. It is hard to look at any of them and think they merit losing their place, especially as there are no concerns over a lack of match practice for them.

Wijnaldum so often finds his most combative, influential form for home tussles against ‘big six’ rivals, and considering he has featured in all 26 Premier League fixtures this season, starting 24, he is a definite starter.

Meanwhile, Thiago had one of his most measured showings yet for Liverpool at Sheffield United, not only toning down his tackling, but threading passes between the lines and generally exuding class.

His big-game pedigree also means it would be a shock if he was left out, even if he does have a lot of football in his slightly ageing legs in recent weeks.

In different circumstances, Jones would feel like the most expendable of the three, but that has changed after the performance he produced on Sunday.

This is no longer a young footballer who it feels risky to start – this is a fearless player producing the goods on a consistent basis, whether it be his attack-minded style or his ever-improving work-rate.

To axe Jones out against Chelsea, when he must be on cloud nine, would make little sense.

Ultimately, these are the three that Klopp should go with, but the beauty of the situation is that Milner or Keita starting would be no issue in the slightest.

Milner is somebody that the boss loves to have on the pitch in big outings, especially with other leaders such as Henderson and Van Dijk injured. His intelligence and know-how of getting through such big tests can be priceless.

Then there’s Keita, who brings that Thiago-esque guile to the midfield, not to mention a tenacity off the ball that so often goes criminally unnoticed. If the Guinean can stay fit for a prolonged period between now and May, he is going to be a huge player for the Reds.

Milner and Keita can be perfect people to bring on around the hour mark on Thursday, with both capable of having a major impact, regardless of the score at the time.

Milner’s nous could be massive if Liverpool are defending a lead, perhaps replacing the less experienced Jones, while Keita can add that sprinkling of magic if the champions are in need of some attacking inspiration.

The bottom line is that it’s vital to have the options again, and with Fulham heading to Anfield on Sunday, Klopp no longer has to worry about fielding the same midfield every game during this most draining of seasons.

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