Martin Kelly's Return Could Prove as Important for Liverpool as It Is to Himself
It represented the first senior action for the right-back in almost exactly one year, having left the field against the same opposition on September 23, 2012 with a ruptured cruciate ligament.
His return couldn't have been more timely either, with Liverpool struggling in the position without regular Glen Johnson and being forced to play a number of other players out of position on that flank, with Andre Wisdom, Kolo Toure and even Jordan Henderson figuring recently.
While Kelly is still far from his optimum fitness and will take as long as another month or two to regain his previous levels of quality on the pitch, it is important that manager Brendan Rodgers has an experienced or natural right-back to utilise instead of shoe-horning others into unfamiliar systems or formations.
Of course, with Kelly it's a bit of a misnomer, he isn't that experienced and he's not really a natural, having been converted from a centre-back early in his progression toward the first team, but he certainly is the most natural replacement for Johnson that the club has to offer. He should, barring any reactions to his first appearance, be included in squads going forward and could quite possibly be picked in the next league game's starting lineup.
And perhaps that is another important consideration.
Kelly is now 23 years of age and will turn 24 before the season is out. By any normal football consideration he is no longer a youngster, but should instead be well established as a member of the first team.
He has, to date, made just 55 senior appearances for the first team. Considering he made his debut in late 2008, he should easily have doubled that tally by now, but a succession of injuries have held him back from making anything like an extended run in the side.
There's a good chance that, had he not gotten injured early on last season, he would have established himself as Liverpool's first-choice right-back.
Kelly played four of the first five games and was in great form prior to his injury, but as things stand, his longest run of consecutive league games for the Reds stands at just six. That run, in late 2010-11 under Kenny Dalglish, was also ended by injury—a hamstring tear suffered at West Ham.
The Whiston-born defender, capped once by England, has returned from his latest long-term absence a powerful and intimidating presence, an even more hulking giant of a defender than he was beforehand. Naturally, a lot of muscle strengthening in the areas around his affected knee would have taken place, but it also appears he has bulked up his body mass.
For a time, questions have been asked whether Kelly has the fortitude and resilience within his body to play an attacking, dynamic right-back role on a regular basis or whether he should be switched centrally.
Three summer signings seem to have answered that question, with centre-backs Mamadou Sakho, Tiago Ilori and Kolo Toure recruited; Kelly stays as a full-back for now, and given his age he must now push on and make that spot his own. Johnson will return from injury soon enough, but in the meantime, Kelly can fill an important role for the Reds while also seeking to make sure his latest bid to establish himself lasts a little longer this time.
A fully fit Kelly is an excellent weapon for Liverpool, at both ends of the field, but it's time for him to show that more than a dozen times a season. He needs it, and the team needs him.
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