Neil Humphreys: Liverpool have a problem only Mane can solve
Liverpool's cup demise is proof that their season rests on Senegal's ANC performance, and not Sturridge
Liverpool's season depends on Senegal.
Sadio Mane offers salvation. Daniel Sturridge only adds to the confusion.
Liverpool's limp performance against Southampton yesterday morning (Singapore time) reiterated how woefully inept they are without their Senegalese forward.
They can't win without him. They can't win with Sturridge.
The League Cup exit confirmed a growing suspicion that Juergen Klopp has slapped a Band Aid across a threadbare squad to hide the internal bleeding.
But the sticking plaster is off, opponents are picking away at the bloody scab and Liverpool's season is haemorrhaging. Until Mane returns, the Reds are stuck with a fumbling Sturridge.
It's hardly a surprise that the Anfield faithful are hoping that Senegal get knocked out of the African Nations Cup on Sunday morning.
They clutch to the solitary straw of Mane returning early to face Chelsea three days later.
If the muddled thinking reeks of desperation - Sane would obviously be jet-lagged - it's entirely understandable.
In just three weeks, Klopp's exhausted automatons have slipped from title-chasers to chumps and look less and less likely of finishing in the top four.
At the root of Liverpool's problems lies a haunted striker struggling to recapture former glories.
A likeable character, Sturridge's commitment could hardly be questioned, but he's currently chasing shadows - mostly his own.
Three years of niggling injuries appear to have robbed the 27-year-old of his most effective asset. Speed.
His renowned ability to leave defenders flailing in his slipstream allowed him to score 60 times in 111 appearances for the club. But that guy, the blistering, swaggering predator of the penalty box, was conspicuous by his absence against Southampton.
Two decent chances were snatched at because he was late on arrival. He got there as quickly as he could.
His boots willingly chased balls towards the byeline, only to clatter into the advertising hoardings.
There are echoes of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, two gifted accelerators who initially found scoring in a Liverpool jersey as easy as breathing only for their bodies to eventually betray them.
Owen spoke of the fear of another hamstring tweak, pulling back just in case. Explosive bursts gave way to tentative dashes, the difference between scoring and just missing, the gap being that infamous "half a yard".
And Sturridge appeared to play within himself against Southampton.
In effect, Liverpool operated with 10 men, as Jamie Carragher pointed out in his analysis, a problem further exacerbated by Klopp's style of play.
Perhaps a lack of options stops the German from turning to a Plan B, but his existing approach is easier to pick apart with Sturridge in the side.
In the first half of the season, particularly when Mane was included, Klopp got away with it.
The Reds pressed high and released their front three quickly, hoping to score before opponents noticed that the defence was held together with sticky tape.
But Southampton recognised that if outstanding midfielders James Ward-Prowse and Oriol Romeu stuck a clamp on the centre circle, Liverpool had nowhere to go.
Klopp favours counter-attacking en masse rather than a threaded pass through the middle, partly because he doesn't have the killer ball-type of midfielder. The last one, Steven Gerrard, could be seen shaking his head in the stand.
But the overriding reason may be that Sturridge no longer reaches those kinds of passes. Nor does he link up play particularly well, an integral part of Klopp's swift, pressing model, so the striker frequently finds himself isolated.
And, like a trick of the eye, Liverpool look like they're a man down.
A crisis really could be coming.
Klopp finds himself lumbered with a striker not really suited to his philosophy and lacks the squad depth to find an alternative plan that plays to Sturridge's strengths.
The German can only bide his time and wait for Mane to return.
By then, Liverpool's season could be over.