Steven Gerrard’s lingering Liverpool goodbye continues to take place from the treatment table and Jordan Henderson hasn’t travelled to the Europa League tie at Besiktas because of a minor knock, meaning that Martin Skrtel is likely to take the captain’s armband in Istanbul on Thursday.
That in itself isn’t all that surprising, but it is another symbol of the Slovakian’s importance to his club.
Skrtel first captained Liverpool in a 3-2 win at Blackburn Rovers nearly three years ago, a match featuring two Maxi Rodriguez goals laid on by Craig Bellamy, a red card for the goalkeeper Alexander Doni and a last minute winner from Andy Carroll – all overseen by manager Kenny Dalglish. The centre-back has indeed seen a lot during his seven years at Anfield.
He’s seen the brief brush with greatness and ultimate fall of the tail end of the Rafael Benitez era, the dismal failures of Roy Hodgson, the promise, limitations and League Cup (he scored in the final) under Dalglish, and the attempts at re-emergence – almost spectacularly so – under Brendan Rodgers.
And yet in all of that time the 30-year-old has never really found universal acclaim – always seen as being just a second away from a mistake, a walking penalty concession, someone any self-respecting forward can ‘get at.’
Those criticisms have indeed been true from time to time – and they have often led to extended spells out of the team – but credit has to now be given where it is due. At a time when Liverpool are on their longest run of away league clean sheets since 1985, Skrtel has emerged as a key leader within the team.
He was immense at Southampton on Sunday, beating Graziano Pelle to every header and holding court at the back as the hosts threatened to overwhelm their visitors for large portions of a match they were unlucky to lose.
Nor was that excellent display a one-off, either, as the Slovakian has been a key part of the Liverpool turnaround following the much-lamented failures of the beginning of the season.
Skrtel is far from perfect, but he is the best that Liverpool have right now.
Sure Mamadou Sakho has impressively come into form recently, but Dejan Lovren has represented a nervous child in an egg and spoon race for his first six months as a £20m Liverpool defender – always focusing on one thing and seemingly forgetting to run from time to time. Emre Can’s future is in midfield, whilst Kolo Toure’s is away from the club.
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All bar Toure cost the Reds more than Skrtel did, but the £6.5m Benitez paid to Zenit St Petersburg in 2008 has gone on to prove a pretty sound investment.
His seven goals last season played a part in one of the most madcap title challenges witnessed in Premier League history, but in this campaign he has arguably been more impressive. As Rodgers’ side struggled to find their identity, he’s always been there seeking to reinforce it.
In the 18-game, two-and-a-half month spell since the dismal 3-0 defeat at Manchester United he’s been excellent: thundering in a last-gasp header against Arsenal, holding firm as the central piece of a back three puzzle, knocking Diego Costa around, winning all those headers against Pelle. He’s arguably been the symbol of what Liverpool would consider to be the only period in which they’ve been themselves this season.
Could they do better? Probably, but then Rodgers thought he was doing that with Sakho, Lovren and others in the past. Previous Liverpool managers have tried to replace Skrtel too, but like a good pair of jeans he just seems to keep coming back into fashion.
A return to the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul is likely to lead to nostalgic trips down memory lane for the Reds and their supporters, but the events of a Champions League final 10 years ago have little to no bearing on what is going on at the club now.
Just what that is might not be perfect, it might not be taking place at the level those fans want it to be at and it might have had an air of ‘work in progress’ for a little too long, but there is a growing sense that Liverpool’s hard work is beginning to pay off as they approach the business end of the season.
And that makes Skrtel the perfect symbol for their campaign.
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