Leicester continue to profit from the versatility of Brendan Rodgers. Notwithstanding Liverpool’s struggles, it would be no surprise if Rodgers’s team emerge victorious from a Saturday lunchtime duel at the King Power Stadium. Leicester start the weekend in third and three points ahead of their manager’s former employers. As Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal gaze on from varying distances, the top four is a wholly realistic Leicester aim.
Rodgers has been rocked by news that James Justin will miss the rest of the season because of a serious knee injury. Yet this Leicester team have made a habit of leaping over hurdles. Rodgers’s own motivation, to prove his worth in differing environments, is integral to that.
“One of the things I have always looked at is to test myself, to take on a challenge,” the Leicester manager said. “When I went to Liverpool, they had finished eighth and been out of the Champions League for five seasons [in fact, two seasons]. Celtic were winning, they had been on a run of titles, [but] Rangers were coming back and had beaten Celtic in a semi-final. The challenge was, could we win in a better way, in the best way possible.
“I felt coming here, the challenge was: can we disrupt that top six? Apart from Leicester winning the league, it was pretty much set and actually below the top six the gap was increasing. So, could we come in and challenge that hierarchy? We knew we were never going to have the resources of the super-clubs but could we find another way, create an environment and develop players? I’m satisfied with that element but we still have so much to push for.” Rodgers is correct to highlight the collective but his own status is enhanced by Leicester’s position.
Leicester are far from paupers but financial context is everything. Rodgers’s man-management and tactical skills have come firmly to the fore. “Liverpool are an outstanding team,” he said. “They play well in big games for a reason. This is another challenge for us; can we make the next step?” Leicester have not beaten Liverpool since Rodgers took office in early 2019.
It is partly through deep respect for a former employer – and Jürgen Klopp – that Rodgers won’t link Liverpool’s recent form to a wider demise. He rejected any notion the prospect of a marauding Jamie Vardy would further traumatise Alisson, after the goalkeeper’s horror show against Manchester City last Sunday.
“When I look at Alisson over the time that I have seen him there – and I’m sure everyone will agree – he has been super-reliable in terms of how he has played, what he has given the team,” Rodgers said. “Him and Virgil van Dijk have transformed the defensive unit. From time to time even the very best goalkeepers will make mistakes. He is still top class.
“Our strategy is about coping with all the team. He will come out in this game and have put all that behind him already. I think it tells you how reliable he has been that people are focusing on a couple of mistakes. That shows you how little and often he makes them. He is a world-class keeper who has helped Liverpool become what they are.
“Their consistency for the last two years has been phenomenal. Listen, they are still up there. And there is still a long, long way to go. We are all trying to hang in there as long as we can and see where we are with five games to play.”
Rodgers believes Justin’s adaptability means he “wouldn’t have been far from the thoughts” of Gareth Southgate for a European Championship berth. A scan on Thursday revealed the 22-year-old suffered ACL damage in Wednesday’s FA Cup win over Brighton. The timeframe for Justin’s return is not known but he will be absent for several months.
“It is a devastating blow for us because he’s been incredible since he came into the team last year,” said Rodgers. “He’s played in many positions. Wherever I’ve asked him to play, whatever position, he’s been a minimum eight out of 10 and developing as a top Premier League player. He’s tough mentally and physically, that’s what makes him the boy he is. It will make him stronger.”