For most of Liverpool’s squad, the forthcoming tour of the United States—which officially gets underway against AS Roma in Boston on Thursday—signals the start of the build-up toward the new domestic campaign.
For Jose Enrique, however, it might be the most important step on what has been an agonisingly long road to recovery from injury, one that has seen him become almost the forgotten man as his team-mates pushed on in his absence and brilliantly defied so many expectations last season.
Enrique was expected to be a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ side for the 2013-14 season, especially after he started six of the club’s opening seven matches (none of which they lost). But, as excitement quickly built around a team that was setting the pace at the top of the table, Enrique began complaining of a knee problem, one that initially forced him to miss a few games and then, at the end of November, undergo major knee surgery.
By then it was hoped that the Spaniard would return in time for the New Year, before that return date was pushed back toward the final weeks of the campaign. Ultimately he ended up sitting out the entirety of a campaign that saw Liverpool go agonisingly close to winning the Premier League.
In light of all that, Enrique has little doubt that 2013-14 was the most difficult year of his professional career. But, finally injury-free and back to full training with the squad as normal, the tour of the United States is the chance to move on from that—after being used sparingly in last week’s friendlies with Brondby and Preston North End, the 28-year-old expects to be like any other member of the first-team from Boston onwards.
“It was a very, very difficult year for me because the team was doing very, very good—of course not being involved in that was really hard,” Enrique told Bleacher Report. “But now I’m ready.
“We are taking it slowly and have to be careful because of course it has been a long, long time and it is better we go slowly then have to stop again—no-one wants that.
“But now I want to start, I want to play as much as possible. The manager will decide, but for America I will be completely perfect.”
Enrique has rejoined a squad that now looks markedly different from the one he left, with Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert already signed up—and a few more big names (including, perhaps, Divock Origi and Loic Remy) expected to supplement manager Brendan Rodgers’ squad before the summer window closes.
“Of course, they add to the squad what we already have because last year we showed we already have an amazing team,” he notes. “You can see the team finished second in the league. It is true we have one player, Luis, who has left, but we still have amazing players in this team.
“The club gets a lot of money for him, and hopefully we will spend it well. I think we have already started doing that.”
Luis, of course, is Luis Suarez, whose £75 million transfer to Barcelona is expected to be formally ratified any day soon. Enrique is happy for his friend but believes the club can continue to prosper even without one of the best players in the world.
“Not just for Luis, but for any player in this team, after the season we had as a group last year there are going to be offers into the club—that is the reality of the situation,” Enrique notes. “For me Luis is without a doubt the best player I have ever played with.
“As a No. 9, him and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are the two best strikers in the world at the moment. So it is normal that there would be offers for him.”
He adds: “At the end of it all I just wish him the best, because he’s been amazing for Liverpool. I know what people all say about him but in the dressing room he has always been great.
“He wanted to play [in Spain] as well—his wife and family are over there, so I think everyone will have to respect that. I have already spoken with him about it all, and I wish him all the best.”
Partly due to the sale of Suarez, and partly due to the aggressive strengthening of many of their rivals at the top of the Premier League, Liverpool are down to fifth favourites among the majority of bookmakers to win this season’s Premier League title according to Oddschecker.
It seems few expect Rodgers and Co. to replicate last season’s efforts without their Uruguayan talisman, but Enrique believes it would be foolish for anyone to write them off just yet.
“We will go for everything,” he notes. “Of course it is true that we are going to miss a player like Suarez, that is the reality.
“But we still have a lot of really, really good players in this squad. Football is about 11 players on the pitch, plus the players on the bench, plus the rest of the squad—it is no one-player game. It is a team sport.
“Suarez was a great part of that, but he also did well because of the players he had around him, so of course we want to compete at the same level as last year.”
If Suarez will be the player conspicuous by his absence, at least at the start of the season, then Enrique is the invisible man eager to re-establish himself at Anfield. Relatively unchallenged for the left-back spot at the time of his injury, his extended lay-off has seen Jon Flanagan emerge as a fan favourite and viable alternative in his position, while Rodgers has seemingly made a left-back signing a priority in the current transfer window.
Sevilla full-back Alberto Moreno was heavily linked with the club before the World Cup, per Mike Whalley of ESPN FC, while Swansea’s Ben Davies (now set for Tottenham) was touted as a player of interest in the past few weeks, according to John Percy of The Telegraph.
Enrique is aware of the speculation, but he is confident he will be a regular and important contributor for the team this season.
“I still have two years on my contract at Liverpool and my plan is to stay here and play as much as I can,” he says simply. “Of course, then there is the manager’s decision, but my idea is that I have been one year without playing and I’m just thinking about playing again now. That is the best thing in my life and I want that again.
“Of course it is the manager’s decision, but I expect to play quite a lot this season.”
That, he hopes, will include Champions League football—the first time the ex-Villarreal and Newcastle player has experienced the competition.
"As a player, other than playing in the Premier League—which for me is the best league in the world—the Champions League is the best thing to play in,” he says. “You are playing against the best teams in the world, and you always want to play in this sort of thing.
“That is why we are at a big club, that is why I came here to play for these type of trophies. I am so happy that, after three years, I will get to play in it.”
The US tour offers a warm-up for the return to that competition. Liverpool’s tour opponents are a relative Who’s Who of European football, with games against Olympiakos (in Chicago), Manchester City (New York) and AC Milan (Charlotte) in the International Champions Cup set to follow the Roma opener.
Enrique believes that level of opposition, all of whom are recent Champions League participants, is ideal for his side.
“To play against these type of teams is really good for us, to start to prepare for the Premier League again,” he notes. “We face big teams that maybe we can play again in the Champions League, so it is good to start to get to know them a little bit better and get used to that standard.”
Ultimately, however, the games will be about trying to take home another trophy—while giving Liverpool’s overseas supporters something to cheer about.
“We go there to win the tournament,” he says. “That’s the whole idea. For me personally, and my team-mates, too, I don’t have a friendly game. We always want to win.
“It is not fun and games, we are not playing with friends. This is a competitive sport, and we are going into every game to win.
“Wherever we have been, it is always full of Liverpool fans everywhere. When we have been to the USA before it has been the same. It is always fun. It is amazing to play in front of those crowds.”
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