Paul Gorst speaks to Andy Robertson and hears from Jurgen Klopp after Diogo Jota stepped up his return from injury for Liverpool.
On his first Liverpool start for four and a half months, it was no surprise to see Diogo Jota tire in the second half at Crystal Palace.
Prior to Saturday night’s goalless affair at Selhurst Park, the Portugal international had played just 77 minutes since suffering a serious calf injury in the closing stages of the 1-0 defeat of Manchester City way back on October 16.
Another 71 minutes were added to the tank in south London over the weekend as the former Wolves man provided a reminder of what he can offer with his tigerish pressing, selfless running and unquestionable work ethic.
The quality, however, is still understandably absent. Jota made the most of one speculative ball over the top in the first half before he was hacked down on the edge of the area. He also hit the outside of the post from an almost impossible angle from Joel Matip’s cross.
A second-half attempts was flashed into the crowd after he had wriggled free to find some space from a tight angle in the Palace box before his efforts inevitably waned as the game wore on.
After such a long time on the shelf – one that also included him having to come to terms with missing the World Cup for Portugal – it is no shock to see that Jota is yet to take flight following his comeback. It would also be wholly unfair on him to expect an instant return to the sort of levels that saw him register 21 goals across all competitions last season.
Asked last month if he feared it would take Jota some time to get back to his best after such a long lay-off, particularly one that came after he had missed virtually all of pre-season with a hamstring issue that sidelined him until September, Jurgen Klopp said: “No, because it is Diogo.
“He is extremely smart football-wise, he will be back here again [in his mind] because it is like he is playing the games without playing the games.”
Expecting an instant return to peak form after two debilitating injuries either side of what was just a six-week spell of availability was always going to be unrealistic, however, even for someone as hardworking and dedicated as the unassuming Jota.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, though, affording the attacker ample time and space to re-find his groove is something they don’t really have given the perilous plight of their campaign. It’s been nearly 11 months since Jota last scored for the Reds now and after such a difficult campaign that had limited him to just eight appearances and four starts before his return, it would be foolish to anticipate immediate results, particularly while he is playing his way back to fitness in such a confidence-drained side.
“It’s great to have Diogo back and it’s great to have Bobby Firmino back as well,” Andy Robertson told the ECHO after Saturday’s draw at Palace. “When you have these players to choose from, it helps. Obviously Darwin (Nunez) missed today and hopefully we’ve got him back for Wednesday (against Wolves).
“Ibou Konate is back in training too. We’ve got a really strong squad when everyone is fit. We’ve had some injuries but they are all starting to come back and that will give us a chance to try and go for it.”
Jota has only been able to play just 319 minutes of the season so far as a result of those hamstring and calf troubles. Only Naby Keita (293) and Curtis Jones (189) are regulars in the squad who have featured less. It’s a stark reminder of what Klopp has been unable to call upon for the majority of this term; a lamentable aspect made even more acute when you factor in the long-term absence of Luis Diaz, who hasn’t featured since early October and the fact Roberto Firmino missed 10 games before his own comeback recently.
Klopp simply hasn’t had the array of firepower at his disposal and that was one of the factors that expedited Cody Gakpo’s move to Anfield at the start of the year after initially being earmarked for a summer switch from PSV Eindohven.
The manager said of Jota’s performance in his post-match press conference on Saturday: “It was really, really good. That’s how it is. We tried to build it up slightly but it’s a long time (out). Before that he was injured as well.
“He had no pre-season, then played a few games and was really good and then was injured again. It’s been a difficult season for him. But absolutely okay. He can play better of course but that’s how it is. That’s what we have to go through and that’s what we will do.”
Robertson added: “So Jots’ first start for over four months, that is great. He is just trying to get his rhythm back after such a long time out. He is trying to get his momentum and sharpness back. I thought he looked sharp in moments today and Bobby the same, so they just have to keep working on things like getting that match fitness back and things like that and hopefully we can get everyone else back then after that.
“After that we just hope everyone stays fit, you know. We had some injuries this season but if we can [keep everyone fit] then it gives us a chance to change things in games and we’re able to bring on other options if we’re struggling in front of goal. Sometimes this season we haven’t had that.
“So it was great for Jots to start today, he came through it all fine and he will benefit from it. His sharpness will come back, his fitness will be built, he played 70 minutes or so, so that’s a positive for him. He is a fantastic player, we have missed him. Hopefully he can kick on until the end of the season now.”
It is one thing that has gone unspoken this season; while the impulse of those analysing the struggles from the outside has been to lazily bemoan the absence of what Sadio Mane supplied last season, Liverpool, in all actuality, have missed Jota even more.