Mohamed Salah’s fitness, Philippe Coutinho’s future and Virgil van Dijk’s arrival are the three key issues facing Liverpool as they prepare to host neighbours Everton in the FA Cup’s outstanding third-round tie on Friday.
Salah, Liverpool’s 23-goal top scorer, missed Monday’s 2-1 Premier League victory at Burnley because of a groin injury, and manager Jurgen Klopp has indicated that he remains a doubt.
Despite that, Klopp was happy for Egypt international Salah and Senegal forward Sadio Mane were both allowed to fly to Ghana for an awards ceremony taking place on Thursday.
Both men are on the shortlist for the Confederation of African Football’s player of the year award, and Klopp says is important that they are at the ceremony, even though it is so close to the Everton match.
“If it had been a match day, they wouldn’t have asked,” Klopp said. “For our side, it is just a sign of respect. We sleep in a hotel, they sleep in a plane. That is all the difference. If Mo is not fit, it will not be because of that.”
Salah, Mane, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are widely considered to be Liverpool’s four key forwards, though the Senegal international was the only one who started at Burnley, as Dominic Solanke was given a rare start.
Firmino was used only as a substitute, undoubtedly to keep him fresh for the Everton match, while Coutinho was omitted from the squad altogether with a thigh problem, amid reports that Barcelona were preparing a new attempt to sign him.
“He is a doubt, at least a doubt, for Everton,” Klopp said.
Defender Van Dijk, meanwhile, is eligible to make his debut, having officially completed his £75 million move from Southampton on Monday.
If he is selected, it will mean Klopp fielding a fourth different central defensive partnership in four games, with Joel Matip playing alongside Ragnar Klavan against Swansea and Dejan Lovren against Leicester, before dropping out as the latter two faced Burnley.
“There is no rush,” Klopp said on Van Dijk. “We need time. A pre-season is for that usually but we don’t have a pre-season. After the Everton game, we have a little bit more time, that will help, but it’s a long-term project.
“So it’s not important when he makes his first game, it’s important how many good games he will play for Liverpool.”
While Liverpool are unbeaten in all competitions since October 22, Everton have gone four games without victory, losing their last two, at Bournemouth last Saturday and at home to Manchester United on Monday.
New manager Sam Allardyce guided them to a 1-1 draw against Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League on December 10, although the visitors were outplayed for a significant chunk of the game, needing a late Wayne Rooney penalty to secure a point.
England midfielder Ross Barkley is getting close to full fitness, having missed the entire season to date with a hamstring injury, but he is not expected to be available to face Liverpool.
Everton have struggled for goals all season -– they have scored 25 in the Premier League to Liverpool’s 50 -– and defender Michael Keane says that has to improve.
“We’ve not scored a lot of goals lately and we’ve not created a lot of chances,” he said.
“That’s something we need to do and we are working on it, it’s just not happening at the minute. We need to show more quality in the final third and I’m sure it will come.”