Martin Skrtel scored goals, Simon Mignolet made impressive saves and Jon Flanagan improved beyond probably even his wildest dreams, but every evaluation of the men who played at the back for Liverpool in 2013/14 always comes with an asterisk next to it.
Next to that asterisk reads “50 Premier League goals conceded,” almost double the amount of Chelsea and only three less than 16th-placed Hull City. For all of the vibrant attacking play and thrill-a-minute football, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that had that half-century been even slightly lowered, the Reds would be champions.
Whilst Skrtel’s frequently manic afternoons and evenings—featuring goals and own goals in almost equal measure—pretty much made him the face of Liverpool’s season, a man who often played alongside him was coming under scrutiny as well.
Paying big money for a defender, as Brendan Rodgers did when he bought Mamadou Sakho from Paris Saint-Germain at the closure of last year’s summer transfer window, is always going to attract attention. Sakho found himself thrust into the limelight from the very beginning when he made his debut in a 2-2 draw at Swansea City. Except it was a limelight he was always having to vacate.
The Frenchman started the first seven Premier League games he was available for following his signing, but he was then restricted to just two five-game bursts for the remainder of the campaign—one in December and then the other right at the end of the season.
Injuries, the form of Daniel Agger and the desire not to change a winning team were all reasons for this, but it became impossible to form a true opinion of the 24-year-old who had begun captaining PSG at the age of just 20.
Now back amongst Frenchmen in his country’s squad for the World Cup, Sakho can use these next few weeks to once again show these leadership qualities and let his club fans know what he’s all about.
According to French journalist Julien Laurens, the Liverpool man will start France’s opening game of the World Cup against Honduras in Porto Alegre on Sunday, where he’ll partner Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane.
Perhaps the very act of playing alongside a player three years his junior—albeit a prodigiously talented one in the form of Real’s 21-year-old Champions League winner—will bring out these leadership qualities in Sakho, who will be stationed on the left of the two centre-backs next to the steady Patrice Evra at left-back.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Sakho played a pivotal role in getting France to Brazil in the first place, with his first two international goals in the play-off against the Ukraine in Paris helping to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 aggregate win.
He was a French hero on that November night, and he can be so again over the next month—a month which in turn could help him find his feet at Liverpool.
With Honduras, Switzerland and Ecuador to face in Group E, the French should be confident of a place in the knockout stages and then perhaps beyond. Of course, losing Franck Ribery has to be considered a big blow, but the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema can make up for that.
Sakho is also part of this talented group of players, but he remains much more highly-rated in his homeland than he is in the country where he plays his club football.
With the Champions League on the horizon for Liverpool next season—marking a quick return to the competition for Sakho after he left it behind at PSG—experience and a knowledge of how to face up to all kinds of defensive challenges will be vital for the Reds.
With Skrtel admirable but skittish, Agger’s fitness issues weighing him down, Kolo Toure on the wrong side of the hill, Tiago Ilori inexperienced and no new central defender seemingly on the horizon, Sakho has the chance to establish himself as his club’s main man in the next campaign.
He’s already one of his country’s main men, and a good World Cup could lead to that giant, hulking frame breezing into Liverpool’s Melwood complex for pre-season training feeling 10-feet tall.
And determined to erase that asterisk which blighted his first English season.
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