Liverpool defender Daniel Agger is closer than ever to returning from his long-term injury problem and to bringing some real competition for the Reds’ centre-half berth. But he is still unlikely to help Liverpool out of a bit of a defensive crisis tomorrow.
Agger went out five months ago with a broken metatarsal. He kept fighting to regain his fitness, even making the subs’ bench at one point, but never quite got back to full fitness. He had special boots made and then later went to see a specialist in Scandinavia who has now given him the green light to play again.
The boots have allowed him to train, but he was continuing to feel discomfort in the previously broken bone. The Danish international said last month: “The problem hasn’t been the boots, it was the foot itself just not being right, there has always been something there stopping me, I’ve always had a setback or two.”
Then a few weeks back Rafa Benítez spoke of Daniel’s improvement: “Daniel is back in training which is very good news for us. Everyone has been working very hard to find a solution to his problem and he now has a new pair of boots which we hope will make a difference. They have been made especially for him by Adidas and they are different from normal boots because they take some of the pressure off the metatarsal that is causing Daniel the problem when he is kicking the ball.”
After five months out there’s also the question of how fit he is in terms of having the stamina to get through a Premier League match, which will have been part of his programme recently: “It would be very good for us if Daniel can prove his fitness because he has become a very important player for us.”
Agger’s lack of match fitness and the need for him to be 100% happy in his own mind that he’s fit again has to be balanced against the alternatives for Rafa. Sami Hyypia needs a partner against Middlesbrough, but with Jack Hobbs now out on loan and Martin Skrtel still out with a calf injury, the choices are limited. That’s because Jamie Carragher got his fifth booking in the FA Cup defeat by Barnsley and so now misses this match through suspension. If Rafa had included Carra in the list of those rested for the FA Cup tie then he’d have been available tomorrow, which proves the point a little further that rotation isn’t always a bad idea, especially when planning long-term. Instead Rafa now has to choose between playing a full-back – Alvaro Arbeloa, only just returning from injury himself – as a centre back or playing the not-yet-ready Daniel Agger.
That said, Martin Skrtel has an outside chance. He told the Daily Post yesterday that he’s right at the end of the estimate given for his absence: “The treatment has been going well. It has got better and better. The prognosis was that I should be back in up to 10 days and this is the ninth one.” Whoever Rafa chooses – and he needs someone on the bench too of course – there will be an element of risk involved.
Sami Hyypia has surprised many by how well he’s coped with the demands of at times playing two games a week when he was expected to spend the season filling in occasionally to allow Carragher and Agger a rest. But Liverpool have rarely had a game where they’ve had more than two fit centre-backs available to choose from. Hyypia’s had a couple of short-term injuries, and before Agger broke that bone in his foot Jamie Carragher had missed games after breaking a rib and spending the night in hospital with worries he’d punctured a lung. Martin Skrtel was signed in January, and although his full debut was one to forget he showed in his later appearances that he’s going to be pushing for a regular place in the starting line-up. Agger is expected to go back to being a regular starter himself when he’s finally over his metatarsal injury, but if the day ever comes when all four are fully fit Rafa will have some thinking to do over which two to start with.
Agger’s teammate Xabi Alonso also suffered a broken metatarsal this season and since returning has found it difficult to get into the team. Rafa choices in the centre of midfield when everyone is fit are as strong as in the centre of defence, even with the sale of Momo Sissoko in January. Captain Steven Gerrard, Argentinean Javier Mascherano (who still hasn’t completed that permanent deal) and Brazilian youngster Lucas all started on Tuesday night, with Xabi remaining on the bench throughout. Xabi hasn’t taken his chances when he’s been given them, and Rafa has not been rotating as much as some make out in recent weeks meaning those chances have hardly come along in abundance. Now there are reports he’ll be considering his future at the end of the season.
Xabi was signed from Real Sociedad in Rafa’s first months in charge at Anfield and became a regular starter in the days when Momo Sissoko was at his best and Steven Gerrard was playing more often than not on the right-hand-side of midfield. Nowadays Rafa’s preferred pairing is Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, with Lucas often getting the nod ahead of Xabi if Rafa decides to change this. With little transfer money likely to be available by the time the owners’ debts have their interest payments made, Rafa may well allow the Spanish international to leave should an offer come in. Rafa recently commented that the 26-year-old had to work harder to improve his fitness levels, and so far he’s only started 13 times for the Anfield side this season. He signed a new five-year contract last summer which means his fee should remain relatively high. If he does go he’ll be sadly missed, but will always be a part of Anfield history, especially for his goal in Istanbul in 2005.
Carragher apart, there’s every chance Rafa will start with the same team that beat Milan on Tuesday night. With the centre-back spot next to Hyypia guaranteed to be taken by a player posing some kind of risk then Rafa will almost certainly feel that Mascherano’s presence is required to mop up anything that doesn’t quite work out at the back. With Lucas also playing in midfield there will be more opportunities for Steven Gerrard to find the freedom for some of his creativity and dynamism. Babel’s first-half performance was worthy of another start, which should also help him to start improving his stamina, the Dutchman often tiring well before the end of games he gets to start. Dirk Kuyt’s return to confidence is likely to earn him another start, and Rafa wouldn’t dare to leave a fully fit Torres out of this game. That said, this is Rafael Benítez we’re talking about, and it’s never easy to second-guess his plans. If he’s confident enough in his defence, we may see the side (again, Carra excepted) that ended the game on Tuesday night, with Crouch and Pennant in for Babel and Lucas.