Neil Humphreys: Unleash the Ox against Manchester City
Unpredictable Reds midfield maverick could make difference against the champions
Pep Guardiola must recognise the irony. The footballer that most resembles one from Manchester City may be playing against Manchester City this weekend.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has the touch and vision of a Guardiola midfielder, but he belongs to Juergen Klopp.
He's made for the champions, but primed to defeat them.
What makes him irregular at Liverpool would make him almost regular at City.
He's an attacking midfielder with no fixed abode.
He roams where he pleases, the worst kind of nightmare for a control freak like Guardiola.
When the two sides meet at Anfield on Monday morning (Singapore time), Oxlade-Chamberlain could spearhead the attack of the clone.
He looks like them. He walks among them. He could slip between them.
As he demonstrated in the 2-1 win against Genk yesterday morning, Oxlade-Chamberlain plays the floater in an otherwise rigid formation.
The Reds remain a 4-3-3 enterprise of counter-attacks and whipped crosses, but Klopp needs a fluid option, too.
The difference between City and Liverpool last season was a single sense.
But in a tactical sense, the difference was almost intangible because the position and responsibilities that separated the two clubs were almost intangible.
David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne's positions are often interchangeable and difficult to pin down. They are a trio of No. 10s.
Pockets of space are there to be picked, wherever they may be.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, 26, enjoyed a similar sense of freedom against Genk, taking on more roles than an overeager thespian in a school play.
Initially, he occupied the Roberto Firmino position, a false leading man, in essence, where he encouraged the men around him to share the limelight.
But he also drifted left and right, as well as dropping into a deeper position - his preferred area in central midfield.
In other words, he was everywhere.
He gave everything and conjured the winning goal from nothing.
On the edge of a crowded box, the Englishman spun his marker and despatched a lovely strike.
His foresight, turn and finish were impeccable.
There were red shades of Philippe Coutinho.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's performance was also more than a decent impression of a City dynamo. It was a warning.
Klopp does not tweak on a whim. He was dangling his Plan B in front of Guardiola ahead of their upcoming English clasico.
Oxlade-Chamberlain represents a slight variation on the familiar gegenpressing.
To the men of Manchester, he could be seen as a mirror image, a mercurial artist that's difficult to second guess. City have already tried and failed before.
A quirky statistic is also a worrying one for Guardiola.
Before his knee ligament injury in April 2018, Oxlade-Chamberlain's last two goals came against City.
The first helped to end the champions' 22-match unbeaten run in the English Premier League, back in January 2018.
He drifted away from Fernandinho and launched a rocket past Ederson. Liverpool won 4-3.
More famously, he filled Coutinho's boots in the Champions League quarter-final, first-leg in April 2018.
With the Brazilian gone, Oxlade-Chamberlain was promoted to creator-in-chief.
He smashed one in from 20 metres. The Reds prevailed 3-0.
He was unstoppable.
Klopp had found his anchorman, with Oxlade-Chamberlain treading the lines behind Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
And Guardiola had found a problem. In the EPL - and both legs of that Champions League quarter-final - City had essentially been undone by one of their own, or at least, the kind of footballer that looked like one of their own.
And now he's back.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has scored four goals in as many games and yet his manager's post-match evaluation still had a whiff of dissatisfaction, which was arguably the point.
The midfielder conjured a winner against Genk, without being fully fit. The rustiness lingers.
Klopp has Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he wants his beloved "Ox" back against City.
A recovering Oxlade-Chamberlain has enough in reserve to see off Genk.
Only the relentless Ox was capable of scoring twice against City in three months.
His fitness in the coming days will influence Klopp's final decision and the magnitude of the occasion may convince the Liverpool manager to play safe.
With a six-point advantage, a draw against City could be celebrated like a victory.
Klopp has his favoured triumvirate of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum for elite opposition, but Oxlade-Chamberlain's improvisation against Genk must make him a contender for selection.
He has the creative versatility to match City's midfield.
He also has the track record to worry Guardiola.
The Spaniard managed to keep Liverpool away from the domestic silverware.
But he could not stop the Ox from charging down City walls.
History might be poised to repeat itself.
More to come from me, says Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain notched his fourth goal in as many games in Liverpool's 2-1 Champions League win over Genk yesterday morning (Singapore time), and while he is pleased with his scoring form since returning from injury, the midfielder says he is still short of his best.
The 26-year-old missed most of last season with a serious knee injury.
"I feel like I'm getting better," Oxlade-Chamberlain told Liverpool's website.
"I've been trying to sort of dribble a bit more and get that side of my game back because that sort of stuff can take a bit of a while when you've been out for a while. Overall, I think there's more to come from me for sure."
Explaining how he is utilising the Englishman, Liverpool boss Juergen Klopp said: "We wanted to have Ox between the lines, give him the space to turn and run at the last line, with options right and left." - REUTERS