With Sadio Mane out, time to see what Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can do
Another international break, another injury. Liverpool supporters always fear the worst when their players head off to represent their countries, and for good reason. The news that Sadio Mane would miss six weeks with a hamstring injury sustained playing for Senegal was met with dismay, but not surprise.
Of all the players Liverpool could ill afford to be without with so many important games coming up, only Philippe Coutinho comes close to Mane. Liverpool's entire season was derailed last January when the Senegalese forward missed a month while competing in the African Nations Cup, but since then Jurgen Klopp has invested heavily in two wide players with pace. The Reds will miss Mane, but at least they look better equipped to deal with his absence than they were last season.
Klopp has a few options to replace his star man, but regardless of what he decides to do, Liverpool are clearly going to be weaker than they would be with Mane in the side. Considering how they've struggled for wins even with Mane, Kopites are understandably worried.
Football is a squad game these days, though, and one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. There is a chance for someone to benefit from the absence of Mane, the question is who will it be?
Coutinho has spent most of his career playing on the left of a front three and he's most likely to get the nod for Saturday's huge game with Manchester United at Anfield. It's far from ideal, though, as Coutinho has been excelling in a midfield three. If the Brazilian is used as a direct replacement for Mane, then that opens up the door for a midfield player. Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum have been competing for one place of late; now there may be room for both. Wijnaldum has usually been terrific in big games at Anfield, so Saturday might be just the occasion for him to bounce back to form.
If, however, Klopp elects to keep Coutinho in a deeper role, then he appears to have a straight choice between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge as the final member of his front three. The inclusion of Sturridge would move Roberto Firmino out wide into a position in which he has often struggled to make much of an impression. That might be a sacrifice worth making if Sturridge was banging in goals, but the England man has done little to justify keeping his place in the team.
All things being equal, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the most natural replacement for Mane, but thus far Klopp has seemed reluctant to pick him. That's understandable when his first-choice players are available, but if Oxlade-Chamberlain cannot get in the team when Mane or Mohamed Salah are absent, it's fair for supporters to question why Liverpool shelled out so much money to sign him, particularly when he was due to be a free agent next summer.
Liverpool needed more cover/competition out wide, so surely this the exact scenario for which Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought in. If he is overlooked again, then some will say that it's a damning indictment of Liverpool's transfer policy.
The 24-year-old has endured a difficult start to the season. His last game for Arsenal was a 4-0 defeat at Anfield and his first game for Liverpool was a 5-0 reversal at Manchester City a fortnight later. Not much has gone right for him since. His only start so far came in a Carabao Cup defeat at Leicester, and he's been largely on the periphery as Liverpool have struggled to turn dominance into victories.
He's been heavily criticised for someone who has barely been given an opportunity to play, and perhaps some of his fiercest critics need to take a step back. Oxlade-Chamberlain is a good player. He wasn't plucked from a Championship side or a smaller European league. He came from Arsenal, which finished above Liverpool in four of the six seasons he was there, won trophies and played regularly in the Champions League. This was not a step up in class for him.
He still has a lot to prove of course, and doubts as to whether he's good enough to hold down a regular place at Anfield are clearly justified, but he's not some chump in over his head at the top level. Yet that's how he's been portrayed recently. It's baffling. He's made only one start for Liverpool, in a patched-up team in a cup competition that, like it or not, was seen by many as an inconvenience. Yes, he was terrible that night, but so were most of his teammates.
So why all the negativity toward him? His Arsenal record is part of it, but presumably it's also based on some disappointing performances for England. Since when have Liverpool supporters put any stock whatsoever in what their players do while wearing the three lions? International football is not a barometer for what a player will do at the club level. If it were, El Hadji Diouf would have been a star at Liverpool instead of a huge flop.
It's fair to doubt whether Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to be good enough to make it at Liverpool. It's also fair to question the club spending so much money on a player with a poor goal-scoring record and an even worse injury one. It isn't fair to write him off before he's really had a chance to prove himself though.
That opportunity has to come now that Mane is unavailable. It might be this Saturday against Manchester United, but if not, then Liverpool have a lot of important games coming up and they need Oxlade-Chamberlain to step up to the plate.
This is what he was bought for, so let's see what he can do.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.