Football

Testing times for Liverpool

Injuries to key players and African Nations Cup threaten to derail Reds' title hopes

LIVERPOOL 2

(Divock Origi 75, James Milner 90+1-pen)

SUNDERLAND 0

Liverpool fans feared the worst when they witnessed Philippe Coutinho leaving Anfield on crutches with his right foot in a protective boot early in the 2-0 win over Sunderland on Saturday.

The Brazil international was caught by Didier Ndong's follow-through half an hour into the game, but he would not be able to be scanned until yesterday at the earliest.

The influential playmaker has played a major part in Liverpool's emergence as title challengers this season and is their leading scorer with six goals, having created countless other chances.

CONCERN: Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp (far left) looks on as star playmaker Philippe Coutinho leaves the pitch on a stretcher after injuring his right foot against Sunderland. PHOTO: REUTERS

With another creative player in Adam Lallana still sidelined with a groin problem, the Reds can ill-afford another absence, especially after Roberto Firmino was forced off late on with a calf problem with striker Daniel Sturridge missing the game with a similar injury.

DECIMATED ATTACK

With Saido Mane off to the African Nations Cup with Senegal in January, Liverpool's fearsome attack could be decimated in the coming months.

Defender Joel Matip, who has been impressive for the Reds this season, could also represent Cameroon at the African Nations Cup, but he has fallen out of favour with boss Hugo Broos and told the Liverpool Echo in September that he is in favour of staying at Liverpool.

Reds' boss Juergen Klopp is optimistic that Coutinho's injury is not as serious as feared.

"We have to wait for the scan. What we know is it is something with the ankle," said Klopp.

"He had pain. Pain gets better. In the first moment, it was very painful but, at half-time, he said it was better.

"I am quite an optimistic guy so I hope he can train tomorrow."

After last week's goalless draw against Southampton saw them lose top spot, Liverpool's hard-earned win, courtesy of a 75th-minute goal from Coutinho's replacement, Divock Origi, and James Milner's added-time penalty, got them back on track.

It was not the free-flowing performance which has become their trademark this season, but that was partly down to Sunderland's dogged resistance and defensive set-up.

Asked if the game compared in any way to Liverpool's goalless draw at Southampton last week, Klopp said: "I'm not sure I've ever played against a more defensive team than today.

"Man-marking against Phil Coutinho, (striker Victor) Anichebe at left fullback, I don't know how many touches Jermain Defoe had, so that would not be nice to Southampton.

"Sunderland always play a defensive style and that is OK. We forced them to be that. But we had our moments, had our chances. We stayed cool, stayed concentrated."

Origi felt that Liverpool's patience was rewarded as they went back to the top temporarily before Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 yesterday morning (Singapore time) to regain top spot.

"We played with big hearts and pushed and pushed," Origi said.

"The crowd helped us and we were all motivated to get the three points and they were well deserved.

"The manager said before the game that we had to stay patient. He said if we played like that the whole game we would win."

KOP SALUTED

Klopp also saluted the Anfield crowd in willing the Reds to a hard-fought victory.

After the restart, the German ran down the touchline to implore the Kop to sing louder and it seemed to have the desired effect.

"We all need to learn to handle a situation like this. We have a football situation and we work on it, but I believe in atmosphere - it is a big, big part of the game," said Klopp.

"Atmosphere makes everything easier, I tried to remind the crowd and they reacted more than brilliant."

Klopp downplayed any worries about whether he can handle the pressure that comes with trying to end his club's long title drought.

"The size of the club puts no pressure on me," he said.

"It is no pressure, a big joy, a big honour. I don't think about the size every day or the greatness." - Wire Services.

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