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Apr 16, 2014

Rodgers must shuffle his pack as title closes in

After doing the club, the city and the families proud with a moving speech at the Hillsborough 25th memorial service on Tuesday, Brendan Rodgers now returns to the task of trying to bring the Premier League title to Anfield and of preparing his side for Sunday’s trip to struggling Norwich City.

Last weekend’s epic victory over Manchester City put the Reds in the box seat in the race for the Premier League crown but it came at a cost as Jordan Henderson was lost to a three-match suspension, while there is a big injury concern over the hamstrung Daniel Sturridge.

Both have been integral to what Liverpool have done this season; Sturridge is the country’s second-leading marksman behind team-mate Luis Suarez, while Henderson had been an ever-present until that late rush of blood earned him a red card against City. Liverpool do have other options but it’s a far from ideal situation for Rodgers with just four games remaining.

Henderson’s replacement is a straight choice between Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen. The Welshman appears most likely to get the nod having been involved semi-regularly in recent months and given a good account of himself whenever called upon. He played alongside Henderson in those games but would now have the job of replacing him. They’re very different players of course, but Allen can play the same role that Henderson has filled to such great effect this season; he’ll just do it a little differently.

Lucas is another option, having filled in for the unwell Allen at West Ham recently when he was brought off the bench at half-time to play on the right of a midfield diamond. It was an unfamiliar role for the Brazilian but he surprisingly excelled in it. He’ll be pushing hard for a recall, having not started a game since injuring his knee in January, and Rodgers knows that he can rely on either or both of Allen and Lucas to do a job for the team.

- Kelly: Liverpool success not just bought - Gerrard: Norwich warning

The only crumb of comfort with Henderson’s absence is at least Rodgers knows exactly how many games his all-action midfield man will miss and can plan accordingly. With Sturridge it’s less than clear at the moment as the medical staff assess the extent of the damage suffered to his hamstring. “A bit of tightness” was how Rodgers described it. That doesn’t sound too bad, I suppose, but it’s very rare to see a player leave the field with any kind of hamstring injury and then be available for the following week, so it would therefore be a big surprise to see Sturridge taking the field at Carrow Road this weekend. Beyond that, Liverpool just have to hope he’s back sooner rather than later, ideally in time for the visit of his former club Chelsea to Anfield.

Hopefully the medical team will manage his situation better than they did with Mamadou Sakho. The French powerhouse limped off the field at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 29 with what looked to be a serious hamstring pull, or even tear. Initial fears were that he’d miss six weeks but he surprisingly returned to training on Jan. 10 ahead of the game at Stoke City two days later.

In his prematch news conference ahead of Stoke, Rodgers said of the French defender: “Sakho trained today so he looks fine to be in the squad for the weekend.” Well, he didn’t make the squad for Stoke. In fact, he didn’t return to the squad until March 16 when the Reds won 3-0 at Old Trafford. After initially diagnosing the injury as muscle damage, Liverpool later discovered it was a tendon tear which, apparently, takes longer to heal. Kopites are desperately hoping Sturridge’s injury is not as serious but hamstrings are never good and there’s always the danger of coming back too soon and risking further damage.

With no natural like-for-like replacement for Sturridge, I’d expect to see yet another switch to Liverpool’s system, as it’s difficult to play a midfield diamond when you have only one natural striker. Raheem Sterling could probably fill in as a makeshift front man as he played as a central striker in the second half of last season’s Merseyside derby at Goodison Park and was a real menace to the Blues. If Rodgers used the in-form teenager up top with Suarez, that would still allow him to deploy the diamond behind them with Philippe Coutinho at the tip of it and Allen and Lucas flanking Steven Gerrard.

More likely, however, is a return to 4-3-3, at least for the Norwich game anyway. Liverpool coped relatively well without Sturridge for a spell around the turn of the year when he missed eight league games with an ankle injury, as Suarez went goal-crazy in his absence. One of the games Sturridge missed was Norwich’s visit to Anfield, in which Suarez scored four brilliant goals in a 5-1 win. Incredibly, that was the third hat trick the Uruguayan has managed against the Canaries, and he’ll be hoping to make it four this weekend.

The absence of Henderson and possibly Sturridge is undoubtedly a significant blow to Liverpool but they should be able to overcome it as, after all, this is why you have a squad. One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity, and the final four games offer all of Liverpool’s players the chance to make themselves heroes. I actually can’t shake the feeling that Victor Moses is going to make a telling impact in one of the remaining games.

Don’t laugh; I’m being serious. If I was joking I’d have said Iago Aspas. Although ...

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