LIVERPOOL, England — If there was ever any doubt over the importance of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to Liverpool, Takumi Minamino provided the only proof you need in the 90th minute of the club’s goalless Carabao Cup semifinal first-leg draw against Arsenal at Anfield on Thursday.
Minamino, handed a starting role by manager Jurgen Klopp due to the absences of Salah (Egypt) and Mane (Senegal) on Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) duty, had the opportunity to make himself the match-winning hero by scoring from 10 yards in the final seconds. The former FC Salzburg forward had a clear sight of goal, but with the chance to score and give Liverpool a potentially decisive 1-0 advantage ahead of next Thursday’s second leg at the Emirates (2:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+), he fired high over the crossbar.
It was the kind of chance that Salah and Mane, who have scored 33 times between them this season, would have devoured, ruthlessly scoring yet another crucial goal for Klopp’s side. But Minamino isn’t in the same league as Salah or Mane. Neither is Diogo Jota, who is an excellent support act alongside Liverpool’s two world-class forwards but nowhere close to being able to fill the void that their international commitments have created. Divock Origi has often been Liverpool’s late super-sub, but a knee injury continues to keep the Belgium international on the sidelines, so he isn’t available to replace Salah or Mane.
At the end of a game against an Arsenal side forced to play with 10 men for 66 minutes following the first-half sending off of Granit Xhaka for a foul on Jota, Liverpool created just one effort on target, and that came deep in stoppage time from substitute Curtis Jones.
“Any team would miss Salah, Mane and [Naby] Keita,” Klopp said. “We’ve known that already for years. This team was what we had tonight, it can play and score, definitely.”
Had Liverpool been at full strength, with Salah and Mane in the forward line, it is difficult to imagine that they would not have put this tie beyond Arsenal at the halfway stage. While it is no surprise that they are not the same potent force without Salah and Mane, Liverpool’s impotence against Arsenal will worry Klopp, both in the immediate term and going forward.
The fixtures have fallen reasonably kindly for Liverpool during AFCON, with only two Premier League games (against Brentford and Crystal Palace) set to impacted by the absence of Salah, Mane and Keita (Guinea). Salah and Keita could even be back in time for the Palace game on Jan. 23 if Egypt and Guinea fail to progress from the group stage.
All three missed this game, and will miss the return leg, so a potential trip to Wembley for a major trophy against Chelsea on Feb. 27 could fall by the wayside because of their unavailability.
In the long term, though, there is the prospect of having to eventually replace two players who are out of contract in June 2023. They are both 29, so have plenty still to give…