Liverpool seek revenge vs. Man City, Jon Flanagan contract question lingers
Liverpool's players and supporters may still be dealing with the disappointment of losing Sunday's Capital One Cup Final to Manchester City, but at least they don't have to wait long for a crack at avenging their Wembley loss.
Having been pipped to silverware by City for the second time in two years, the Reds have the opportunity to exact some small measure of revenge when they take on Manuel Pellegrini's men at Anfield on Wednesday. Of course not even the most resounding of victories would make up for what happened on Sunday, let alone the title run in of 2014. Liverpool know that as well as anyone, having already experienced a similar situation back in 2012 when they faced Chelsea just days after losing to them in the FA Cup Final.
They absolutely hammered the Londoners that night, running out 4-1 winners and producing one of their best performances of the season. Ultimately it counted for nothing, but at least it briefly put a smile back on supporters' faces and allowed the players to get the Wembley loss out of their system quickly. Residents of the Kop will be hoping for a repeat of that at Anfield on Wednesday.
Beating City this week won't result in a trophy, nor will it have any dramatic impact on Liverpool's league position either, but it's still a big game for the Reds. It's vital that Jurgen Klopp's side bounce back and ensure that the Wembley defeat doesn't completely derail the rest of their season. The top four is out of reach but players are playing for their future at the club beyond this season. There is certainly no time for anybody to be feeling sorry for themselves, especially with a huge two-legged Europa League tie with arch-rivals Manchester United on the horizon.
Klopp is such a passionate and driven individual that it's highly unlikely he tolerates any player who quits on the season and he'll be closely monitoring how his squad reacts to the setback of losing in a cup final. For some, the next three months are essentially a long job interview for next season.
The German may or may not have already made up his mind about which players he can count on for next season but it's immaterial as there is plenty of time for him to change his mind. A player who might be on the fringes now could still force his way into the manager's thinking for next year by seizing whatever opportunities come his way between now and May.
That opportunity will come for some of them this Wednesday as Klopp has little choice but to shuffle his pack after the physical toll the last six days will have taken on his team.
Liverpool's line up in recent weeks has been very settled and Klopp clearly now has a favoured XI that's proving difficult for others to crack. The team that faced City was unchanged from the one that narrowly overcame Augsburg in the Europa League three days earlier, with just one change from the previous two fixtures. The only variable has been in the centre of defence, where Lucas Leiva and Kolo Toure had split time given various injuries.
Yet this "first team" haven't been entirely convincing and some of those who have not been in the manager's preferred line ups now have a great chance to force their way in. Klopp will unquestionably make changes; how many remains to be seen. Lucas has already been ruled out after pulling a muscle on Sunday, while Mamadou Sakho is a doubt after being forced off following a nasty clash of heads with teammate Emre Can. Veteran Toure may be rested after playing the majority of Sunday's game, but Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel are fit again and might be given the chance to stake a claim for a regular spot.
Competition at centre-back is suddenly fierce given the emergence of Lucas as a legitimate option in that role after his successful conversion from a holding midfielder. With Joel Matip arriving this summer to be first choice, there's one spot available alongside him and Liverpool currently have five players "interviewing" for the position.
The left-back spot also appears to be up for grabs now, and Jon Flanagan will be hoping for a recall on Wednesday. Since his return from an injury that kept him out for almost two years, he has impressed in limited opportunities. With Alberto Moreno coming under mounting criticism for a series of below-par displays, Flanagan could stake a real claim for the spot if given the chance.
Moreno's display on Sunday was disappointing to say the least. He was exposed defensively time and again and was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty after clumsily bringing down Sergio Aguero. He was substituted after 72 minutes and was roundly criticised for his display -- not least by Reds legend Jamie Carragher, who has called for him to be replaced by Flanagan, a view shared by many supporters. Brad Smith may also come into the equation after performing well in numerous cup games this season, but Flanagan appears to be the biggest threat to Moreno right now.
That said, Flanagan may be needed on the right flank this week if Klopp decides that Nathaniel Clyne requires a rest. The England man has played a lot of football this season and although he's not shown any signs of tiredness, it might be prudent to give him a break.
The game against City could be especially important for Flanagan because he was omitted from the Europa League squad, meaning that the Premier League is his only chance of football between now and May. He'll be desperate to get back on the field and give the club a nudge to open contract talks.
It's gone under the radar to some extent but Flanagan will be out of contract in a few months and if no offer is forthcoming, he'd be free to sign for another team. Even if an offer is made, he could still walk away. His fee would then be set by a tribunal unless he moved abroad, in which case Liverpool would not be entitled to a penny.
It seems to be taken for granted that this won't happen simply because he's a local lad who has supported the Reds his whole life, but it's a dangerous game Liverpool seem to be playing and one they would surely not be playing with anyone else in the squad.
Skipper Jordan Henderson spoke this week about the need for the club to get the popular full-back signed up for the long-term, but Klopp responded to that by insisting the 23-year-old needed to be patient. While it's understandable the club didn't want to commit to anything while there were doubts over his fitness, it's strange that no moves have been made to tie him down yet.
Having fought so hard to get back, Flanagan deserves the reward of a new contract and hopefully it will not be long in coming. It would be quite fitting if a barnstorming display at Anfield against Manchester City were to seal the deal for him -- it was in this fixture back in 2011 that he first made a name for himself with a man of the match display as a calm, accomplished 18-year-old debutant in a 3-0 Liverpool win.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.