Two unlikely names have come to the fore as Liverpool inch ever closer to qualifying for the Champions League: goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and midfielder Emre Can.
Both were excellent at Vicarage Road on Monday night as the Reds won 1-0 at Watford to capitalise on the mistakes from both Manchester clubs and Arsenal in the race for Champions League qualification.
Most of Liverpool’s wins in 2017 have been achieved through grit and determination rather than with the kind of devastating attacking play they are normally associated with, and Monday night was no exception.
You need luck, and the Reds got that when Watford defender Sebastian Prodl’s shot struck the crossbar with virtually the last kick of the game. Had that gone in, the outlook for Jurgen Klopp’s men would be considerably gloomier, but it would have been a cruel and unjust blow as Liverpool clearly deserved to win the game, particularly after losing star man Philippe Coutinho to injury in the opening minutes.
It’s been a season of contrasting halves for the Reds. Prior to Christmas, it was all free flowing, exciting, “heavy metal football” and the goals rained in from all angles. Liverpool’s best players to that point were the likes of Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana.
Since the turn of the year it’s been much more of a slog as they’ve usually been without one or two (and occasionally even three) of the aforementioned attackers. Results and performances have suffered and an anticipated title challenge became a desperate scramble for a top four spot.
Mignolet’s displays in the first half of the season were not bad and although he found himself out of the team for a spell, it was through no real fault of his own. His replacement, Loris Karius, failed to make the most of his opportunity and Mignolet has since made the shirt his own with some consistently good displays. Over recent weeks, his performances have gone from acceptable to impressive.
Against Watford, he did not have to pull off the kind of match-winning saves he made in wins at Stoke and West Brom, but when he was called into action he exuded the kind of authority and presence that his numerous critics have often (and justifiably) accused him of lacking.
It was the way he dealt with Watford’s aerial bombardment that really stood out, as he claimed cross after cross while refusing to be bullied by Watford skipper Troy Deeney, who on more than one occasion left a little something on the Belgian to try to unsettle him. It didn’t work.
Mignolet has taken a step forward this season, but whether that is enough for him to remain Liverpool’s No. 1 goalkeeper beyond this campaign remains to be seen. Ideally, most Liverpool fans would still like an upgrade, but if Mignolet can remain at the level he has elevated himself to, that will be much easier said than done.
Can’s season has followed a different path. While Mignolet was harshly left out, Can continued to be selected despite a string of below-par displays.
A much publicised contract dispute with the club over the terms of a new contract was cited by some fans as the likely reason for his poor play, but it was later revealed by Klopp that his young compatriot had been playing through injury. It’s surely not a coincidence that Can’s upturn in form came once he had put that troublesome calf problem behind him. The contract issue doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all; in fact it might be bringing out the best in him, as he looks like a man with a point to prove.
Liverpool had reportedly been hesitant to agree to wage demands believed to be around £100,000 a week, and few could blame them based on Can’s performances. Such demands seemed preposterous two or three months ago, but the German’s hand has been strengthened of late by his vastly improved form, coupled with the club paying Dejan Lovren the kind of money Can is apparently looking for.
While Lovren, Coutinho and Lallana have been rewarded with new deals and increased salaries, so far Liverpool have adopted a wait-and-see approach with Can and it is paying dividends.
Too often Liverpool have prematurely handed out promotions and new contracts to staff members, managers and players based on brief periods of good performance, so making Can prove he’s worth what he’s asking is a welcome change from the norm.
They might not want to wait too long before agreeing to a deal, though, as any more goals like Monday night’s and his price may go up further. Still, if he helps to secure Champions League qualification, then at least Liverpool will be able to afford it.
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.