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Most of Liverpool’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg with Stoke City passed Roberto Firmino by on Tuesday night, the Brazilian toiled as a lone-frontman starved of service before he was joined in the second half by Christian Benteke, evidence of his quality reduced to flashes and a series of fine touches that seemed out of tune with the rest of his team-mates.
One of those flashes included a snap-shot that struck the post in normal time but Firmino was unable to swing the tie in his side’s favour, instead having to play his role by scoring in the eventual penalty shoot-out in which Liverpool were victorious.
Firmino and Liverpool will now to go to Wembley for February’s final where the striker is likely to be re-joined by Phillipe Coutinho, injured in the first-leg with Stoke, and maybe Daniel Sturridge, should his latest rehabilitation go without setback.
Firmino and Coutinho could even find themselves forming an all-Brazilian front-three by that point, with Shakhtar Donetsk’s Alex Teixera nearing a £30 million move to Anfield. The noticeable absentee in this roll call is Benteke, last summer’s £32 million acquisition from Aston Villa who has had to settle for a fringe-role in the early days of Jurgen Klopp’s reign.
The manager who sanctioned that move, the now ousted Brendan Rodgers, was on Wednesday defending the move and urging patience with the striker who, despite scoring winning goals against Leicester and Sunderland over the festive period, has failed to start a league game since a defeat to West Ham on the second of January.
Taking his place has been another Rodgers signing, the £29 million Firmino who made a slow start to life on Merseyside but has now suddenly burst into life under Klopp.
Possibly fatigued by the summer’s exertions at the Copa America with Brazil, Firmino failed to score, assist or even play a full 90 minutes in his first nine games, being afforded the patience that comes with the luxury of falling under the radar as scrutiny firmly followed the growing pressure on Rodgers.
When the Northern Irishman was sacked Firmino was nursing a back-injury, but he returned strongly, supplying one of Coutinho’s goals in the 1-3 win at Chelsea before linking up sublimely with his fellow countryman in the 1-4 demolition of Manchester City.
Firmino scored his first Liverpool goal at the Etihad, as well as making another for Coutinho in a man of the match display, the first of a tally that now stands at five after netting four goals in his last three league games.
The Brazilian received the man of the match champagne from games with Arsenal, in which he beat Petr Cech with a wonderful curling strike from outside the area, and with Norwich where his efforts were overshadowed by the shambolic defending that contributed to a rollercoaster 4-5 victory.
The game at Carrow Road marked the sixth time Klopp has fielded the Brazilian as a “false-nine” lone-striker and the German coach would receive criticism for “pushing him into the role” from the pundits with BT Sport, a remark that reads as disingenuous when taken into account him playing there regularly for Hoffenheim and his country.
“Everybody asked me, ‘What about Firmino, we need a real target striker?’ Roberto is a striker. A lot of strikers are 1.60m (5ft 3in). Leo Messi, what is he?” was Klopp’s way of dismissing the questions. “He can play and score goals and he is for us a good option to play with. He is flexible and at the moment in brilliant shape. He gets in the box and then something happens.”
Versatility rewarded in spades
Arsenal struggled to deal with his work out of the box as much as in it, as his license to roam into deeper areas saw him interchange with the impressive Adam Lallana while Jordan Henderson had permission to move forwards into the space created by their movement.
He would play poacher for his first goal, turning in a shot after Cech beat Emre Can’s shot away, before popping up just outside the box, the area where he seems to be at his most dangerous, to curl in his second.
The 24 year old was at it again against Norwich, worrying Sebastian Bassong throughout with his clever movement and netting a first from a reverse pass from James Milner which highlighted his intelligent play between the lines.
It was his clever touch from Nathaniel Clyne’s ball that provided Henderson with Liverpool’s second before he got the finishing touch to a counter-attack that made it 3-3. Klopp then introduced Benteke and moved Firmino to the left, allowing Lallana, who had also come off the bench, to support centrally and to eventually get the winning goal.
It showed the versatility of both player and manager and suggested that Firmino, now coming into form and able to operate in any of the forward positions, will be a huge asset to a manager as flexible and innovative as Klopp.
Benteke left in the shade
Markus Babbel, the former Liverpool defender, managed Firmino at Hoffenheim and described the size of the fee that took the Brazilian attacker to England as “brutal”, though predicted him to overcome the pressures that came with it to succeed in the Premier League.
Not many would have bet on him having more of an impact than the already-bred Benteke but thanks to Firmino’s form under the encouragement of Klopp, it is the Belgian staring down the barrel of flop-status.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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