Reds' road to glory strewn with injury and deficiencies, says Richard Buxton
Injury woes and defensive deficiencies could derail Reds' hopes
SEMI-FINAL, 1ST LEG
VILLARREAL v LIVERPOOL
(Tomorrow, 3.05am, Singtel TV Ch 112 & StarHub TV Ch 212)
Liverpool have never tended to do things the easy way in their pursuit of glory.
But perhaps never quite like this.
In a season that has seen extreme highs and lows engulf Anfield, hedonism and heartache continue to go hand in hand.
Even Juergen Klopp, a firm advocate of transforming cynics into believers, may struggle to put a positive spin on the current predicament.
The perennially upbeat German would do well to find upsides, heading into their Europa League semi-final, first-leg clash with Villarreal tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
He will lead a side that is injury-ravaged, defensively haphazard and devoid of various totems into battle - nothing new, there.
That has been the story of Liverpool's season in a nutshell.
Without Mamadou Sakho, however, the Reds risk being submerged by the "Yellow Submarine".
Not so long ago, the France international was considered an incredibly poor fit in Liverpool's mismatched backline.
He appeared, physically, better suited to rugby than football while his ungainly stance in possession sparked mass panic among the Kop's ranks.
Yet at both ends of the field, he has become both a cult hero and one of the standard-bearers of Klopp's high-intensity brand of football.
Goals have been added to composed and resolute defensive performances.
He was heroic against Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Everton in recent weeks.
Louis van Gaal's side mustered just one goal in the Round of 16, while in the EPL, a shot-shy Everton were incapable of wearing him down.
Dortmund's three-goal haul in an ultimately unsuccessful quarter-final encounter was rendered a mere blip.
Only the stigma of a potentially damaging failed drugs test curtailed Sakho's recent rise to prominence.
That foolishness is already set to cost him a place in his country's squad for Euro 2016 this summer.
An imposed absence, pending Uefa's regulatory outcome, threatens to see Liverpool's season also become collateral damage as it enters its most crucial moments.
Deprived of Sakho's services, a premonition of what potentially lies ahead at El Madrigal tomorrow morning was laid bare by Newcastle last Saturday.
The Reds threw away a two-goal lead, after a Simon Mignolet-inspired horror show, to gift the EPL strugglers, winless on their travels this year, a much-needed lifeline.
Calling it an unassailable advantage would be disingenuous. Nothing about Liverpool's various capitulations have been as comfortable as the erstwhile scorelines suggested.
How many times has that narrative repeated itself this season alone?
Other key absences will be keenly felt on Spain's eastern coast, but have been lessened by the depth in Liverpool's other well-stocked departments.
The loss of Divock Origi's pace and goal supply has been supplemented by Daniel Sturridge's long-awaited return to both fitness and form, however long that lasts.
A wealth of midfield options, meanwhile, has cushioned the respective injury lay-offs of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can.
At a time when defensive cohesion has been in short supply, Sakho's blossoming partnership with Dejan Lovren appears to have put paid to concerns over Liverpool's backline deficiencies.
But, as Champions League qualification hopes now hinge on victory in next month's Europa League final, that road to Basel is heading dangerously towards a cul-de-sac.
BY THE NUMBERS
Villarreal are unbeaten in 11 Europa League fixtures (eight wins, three draws). They have won all six home games in this season's competition.
Liverpool are unbeaten in this season's Europa League (five wins, seven draws). They won one and drew five of their away continental matches.