DIogo Jota returns just in time for Liverpool as their goalscoring problems continue
Jordan Pickford didn’t even see it. Having left Allan flailing with a smart turn, Diogo Jota took one swing of his left foot and rattled the ball into the roof of the net beyond the Everton goalkeeper before wheeling away towards the travelling Kop.
In a season of so many notable highs, claiming a 4-1 triumph at the home of their oldest rivals last December was among the most memorable.
And as Liverpool prepare to make the short journey across Stanley Park for the 241st Merseyside derby on Saturday, that Jota is now finally ready to begin contributing having been absent for almost two months with a hamstring issue is another reason to celebrate.
Certainly, the Reds have missed the option of the Portuguese forward during a difficult start to the campaign in the post-Sadio Mane era. Not least for his ability as a “game-breaker”, the player likely to notch the all-important first goal in breaking down stubborn defences.
Indeed, what was unusual about Jota’s emphatic finish on Liverpool’s last visit to Everton is that it was the final goal of a comfortable triumph.
Jota scored 21 times for Jurgen Klopp’s side last term. A whopping 14 were the first goal in the game – including the season opener in the 3-0 win at Norwich City – while a further six were the pivotal second, half of which came having already opened the scoring. Goodison aside, Jota only deals in match-defining strikes.
And such a contribution has been tellingly absent this campaign. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage Jota making a positive difference had he been available from the opening weekend, particularly with Liverpool having been forced to overcome some resolute defences. Only in last weekend’s 9-0 romp at Bournemouth have they scored first in a game.
While a tally of 34 goals in 85 games so far was sufficient for Liverpool to reward Jota with a new contract last month, the reality is the player may feel he has a bit of catching up to do when he returns to action.
Jota failed to score in any of the final 13 games last season after netting in the 2-2 draw at Manchester City, which perhaps explained in part Liverpool’s growing tendency to concede the first goal – particularly when faced with obdurate rearguards – which has spilled over into the new campaign.
This year has been a strange one for Jota. He assumed responsibility as the senior forward in the absence of Mane and Mohamed Salah on Africa Cup of Nations duty back in January and fired Liverpool to the Carabao Cup final, only for an ankle injury shortly before the Wembley showpiece restricting him to just 40 minutes from the bench against Chelsea.
The impact of Luis Diaz’s New Year signing saw the Colombian emerge as a regular on the left flank, with Mane’s outstanding post-AFCON form in the central role bumping Jota out of the forward line altogether.
He started seven of the last nine Premier League games but began on the bench in the closing stages of the Champions League and FA Cup, although Salah’s early injury in the final of the latter meant Jota played most of the match.
The competition for Jota’s preferred central position will not be any less fierce on his return, with potential club record signing Darwin Nunez settling in and Roberto Firmino having rediscovered his goalscoring form.
In Jota’s favour is his versatility, which will allow him to rotate in for both Diaz on the left and, perhaps more importantly, offering a breather for Salah on the opposite flank.
The latter would lead to the intriguing prospect of a forward line who all forged their reputations in Portugal with Jota joined by Nunez and Diaz.
But regardless of in which position, Liverpool’s first-goal specialist is back in contention. And with the World Cup on the horizon, Jota has more reason than ever to issue a reminder of what the Reds have been missing.