The season is ending too soon for Diogo Jota. He waited a year for a goal. Now he has four in five days to ensure Liverpool’s Champions League hopes still have a pulse.
A week ago, there were questions about where Jota will fit into Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool reboot when a full contingent of strikers are available.
The assumption is Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez will be the preferred options with Mohamed Salah by August. There are no such guarantees, Klopp arguing the era of a predictable Liverpool front three ended when Sadio Mane left and Roberto Firmino began his year-long farewell tour. Having promised the remainder of this campaign will be a taster session for next season, Klopp’s faith in Jota is a signal of how ferocious the competition for a starting place in Liverpool’s attacking trio is becoming.
This has been an important week for the Portuguese striker. He has issued a timely and much needed reminder he is not at Anfield to be an understudy.
Before last Monday, Jota was back on the pitch, but he was not really back. He had played 11 games following a four-month absence with a groin issue and bore no resemblance to the ultra sharp striker who had limped off against Manchester City last October.
Strangely, the most worrying of all his performances was probably the first 30 minutes at Elland Road. Jota had trouble locating a teammate, his balance and touch was deserting him and the pressure of ending his goal drought seemed to be playing on his mind.
His first goal in that 6-1 thrashing was transformative, a visual representation of the role confidence plays in a footballer’s career.
The momentum of the double in Yorkshire continued with two goals to ensure Nottingham Forest’s courageous Anfield performance went unrewarded. It was typical of the Jota of the last two seasons, a close range header followed by some ball juggling in the penalty area and the kind of sumptuous left foot finish that evokes memories of Robbie Fowler.
“With the second goal, you can really see what goals can do to offensive players. They give confidence,” said Klopp.
“It was a super first touch. He could have scored another. You see he can be involved in each defensive situation and still a threat offensively. That makes him so valuable for us.”
Although questions have been asked as to why Jota has been preferred to Nunez, his understanding of the requirements without the ball as much as those with it provide the reason. Where Nunez is tactically unpredictable, Jota has more natural game intelligence. That said, it helps that he is having an impact in the penalty area again, too. His main task moving forward is to stop getting injured.
This is unquestionably Jota’s most significant run since his comeback, adding to the growing feeling that those above Liverpool still have plenty of work to do to ensure Klopp’s eye remains on building a foundation for next season rather than finding the golden nugget of a top-four finish in the debris of this one.
Liverpool had superiority without full control in their latest victory, joining Forest in an exhibition of set-piece expertise in attack, and set-piece ineptitude at the back. Every corner and free-kick into the Forest penalty area was greeted like a hand grenade, resulting in all three of Liverpool’s strikes.
Likewise, Moussa Niakhate’s long-throws evaded Liverpool’s radar, causing panic throughout a chaotic second half, the five goals coming in 23 minutes. There could have been many more.
“All the goals were avoidable,” said Forest coach Steve Cooper. “That is the real frustration. We minimised them to not many open play chances, scored two and hit the bar. So we did some decent things in the game. But you cannot get away from the fact we lost.”
Naturally, Salah had the final word, swatting another Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick beyond Keylor Navas to go level with Fowler’s tally of 183 Liverpool goals. There is no doubt Salah will still be spearheading Klopp’s attack next season. Who will be alongside him on the opening day?
A summer of change is anticipated in Liverpool’s midfield, but Klopp will take comfort that with a rejuvenated Jota his attacking options have been given another polish.