Transfers, Keita and Darwin's development: The six questions Liverpool must answer after the World Cup break

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The Reds return to action against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup on Thursday and have work to do if they are to save their season.

So much for easing yourselves back into it, eh?

Forty days after their last competitive fixture, Liverpool return to action on Thursday night with a big one: a trip to Manchester City, with plenty of pride and bragging rights, not to mention a place in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, on the line. 

With the World Cup done and dusted, attention now turns to club matters in this strangest and most gruelling of seasons. It’s a sprint to the line, with games coming thicker than custard and faster than Kylian Mbappe between now and June.

Liverpool have, after an underwhelming start to the campaign, left themselves with plenty to do. Sixth in the Premier League, they know they can ill-afford any further slip-ups if they are to achieve their minimum aim of a top-four finish, while the Champions League last-16 draw, which has paired them with holders Real Madrid, looms large on the horizon too.

They did, however, head into the mid-season hiatus on something of an upward curve, a run of eight wins from 10 games, including a pair of big ones against Tottenham and Southampton right before the break.

All to play for then and as they prepare to get stuck back into domestic matters, GOAL looks at the questions Jurgen Klopp and his team must answer in the coming weeks and months…

  1. Will they make any January signings?
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    Will they make any January signings?

    There’s only one place to start, really, and that’s with transfers. The January window, traditionally, has been pretty good to Liverpool, with the likes of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Maxi Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Virgil van Dijk all providing some winter warmth down the years. We won’t talk so much about Ben Davies, Ozan Kabak, Steven Caulker or Jan Kromkamp...

    The Reds’ most recent mid-season arrival, of course, was Luis Diaz, and what an impact the Colombian made after his £50 million ($61m) move from Porto at the start of this year. How Klopp could do with a similar kind of catalyst this time around, especially with Diaz now set to be sidelined until at least March with a knee injury.

    A new midfielder seems the most obvious place to start, although the idea of prising Jude Bellingham from Dortmund, Moises Caicedo from Brighton or Enzo Fernandez from Benfica in January looks unlikely, but Liverpool’s forward options look light too at this moment, with Diogo Jota alongside Diaz on the treatment table. So much rests on the form and fitness of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, and on the development of Darwin Nunez. Whether Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Fabio Carvalho and Curtis Jones can provide adequate support in wide areas is certainly debatable.

    It is this correspondent’s belief that at least one new signing is necessary if the club is to even give itself a chance of achieving its aims, and that two would give them an even better one.

    A midfielder and a forward, then. A Coutinho and a Suarez, perhaps? They can dream…

  2. Can their key players stay fit?
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    Can their key players stay fit?

    It didn’t take long for Liverpool’s pre-season optimism to fade. When they beat Manchester City in the Community Shield at the end of July, it appeared as if they hadn’t missed a beat from the previous season. 

    And then things began to change. From that game, they lost Naby Keita and Curtis Jones to injury. A day later, Ibrahima Konate damaged his knee in a friendly against Strasbourg, and then Thiago Alcantara limped off less than an hour into the Premier League opener at Fulham.

    Tone set. Since then, Klopp has been forced to alter his plans repeatedly, as his squad has been beset by a host of muscle issues, illnesses and contact injuries.

    Keita, Jones, Konate and Thiago all missed big chunks of the season, while the likes of Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson, Joel Matip, Calvin Ramsay and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have also been sidelined. Jota, who missed the start of the campaign with a hamstring tear, is now out until the New Year with a calf problem, while Diaz will be sidelined until March.

    Even Arthur Melo, the man signed to alleviate the crisis at the end of August, has been struck down. The Brazilian has so far managed only 16 minutes, though he should be back in January.

    The Reds have appointed, belatedly, a new club doctor, with Jonathan Power due to take over full responsibilities in January. Klopp will hope the new appointment brings with it a change in fortune.

  3. Who is Van Dijk's partner?

    Who is Van Dijk's partner?

    He may not have been at this absolute top level so far this season, but we know the identity of Liverpool’s No.1 centre-back

    The question is, then, who is the best partner for Virgil van Dijk?

    Right now, it’s hard to look past Konate, who furthered his reputation significantly with France at the World Cup. The 23-year-old’s speed, power and vastly-underrated positional sense were all on full display in Qatar, and he will feel he has done enough to earn the shirt upon his return to Merseyside.

    But both Matip and Joe Gomez are, for now at least, fit and available, and both have proven in the past to be more than capable starters.

    Gomez, though, has been up and down this season, while the suspicion is that last season’s tally of 43 appearances in all competitions was something of an outlier with Matip, whose injury record has been patchy throughout his time on Merseyside.

    For now, surely, it will be Van Dijk and Konate. Maybe that will help fix the Reds’ issues?

  4. Will the real Fabinho return?

    Will the real Fabinho return?

    Of all the mysteries surrounding the opening months of the season with Liverpool, the struggles of Fabinho are perhaps hardest to comprehend.

    At his best, the Brazilian is one of the finest holding midfield players around, but he has been far from his best this term, often looking confused, exposed and heavy-legged. He has been left out of several big games as a result.

    Liverpool’s midfield generally has an issue, but it would look a lot less worrying if Fabinho was playing at anything like his top level. They need his strength, his simple distribution and his ability to hoover up loose balls and keep the team on the front foot.

    Hopefully, a change of scenery can bring about a return to form.

  5. Can Darwin's development continue?
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    Can Darwin's development continue?

    If Liverpool’s form picked up in the autumn, then the same can most definitely be said of Darwin Nunez.

    The Uruguayan netted seven goals in 10 games prior to the World Cup break, and though his time in Qatar was frustrating, the sight of Nunez scoring twice in the friendly win over AC Milan in Dubai last week will have had Klopp smiling. 

    In the absence of Diaz and Jota, Liverpool need him to keep that form going, whether as a No.9 or, more likely, from that raiding left-sided role in which he looked so impressive against Tottenham and Southampton.

    There’s no doubt, here at least, that the former Benfica man will turn out to be a star at Anfield. The next few months would be the ideal time to prove it.

  6. Will Keita earn himself a new deal?
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    Will Keita earn himself a new deal?

    Ah, Naby Keita. The great Anfield enigma. If these are to be the final months of the Guinean’s Liverpool career, then he could do with making them good ones.

    Keita, like Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner, is out of contract in June, and is free to negotiate with overseas clubs from January 1. Liverpool would still quite like to keep him, according to GOAL sources, but they would also like to see him play a few games.

    Two friendly run-outs in Dubai have at least provided some promise, but fans could be forgiven for taking a ‘believe it when I see it’ approach when it comes to Keita. There have been too many false dawns, too much promise-followed-by-disappointment. 

    If he plays regularly, the likelihood is that he will make an impact and that calls for a new deal will intensify.

    The problem is the size of that ‘if’.