At the start of the 2020/21 season, Liverpool fans hoped new signing Diogo Jota would provide much-needed depth to a squad looking to retain its Premier League title.
Now, after recovering from injury, he returns to a Liverpool team that doesn’t know if it will even play European football next season. A calamitous run of form to begin 2021, including six straight defeats at Anfield, tanked the Reds’ title defence and now leaves them fighting to avoid an unwanted label as one of the worst Premier League defending champions in history.
Possibly thanks to their winning pedigree the last few years, bookmakers still fancy Liverpool as the most likely of the outside pack to break into the Champions League places, listed at 21/10 in the latest Premier League top-four odds. They face competition from West Ham, Tottenham and local rivals Everton, all of whom have dipped in and out of form lately, while Chelsea enjoyed an unbeaten first ten league games under Thomas Tuchel to strengthen their hold on a top-four position.
Portugal forward Jota, a high-profile signing for £41 million from Wolves in the summer, was added to a long list of Liverpool absentees this season when he suffered a knee injury late into a Champions League group stage match against FC Midtjylland in December. Liverpool have been devastated by injuries this year after losing Virgil van Djik, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip for the season, among several short-term losses in attack and midfield.
Ironically, the signing of Jota was meant to safeguard against injuries. Too often in Liverpool’s title-winning season, the Reds were forced to rely on Divock Origi or Xherdan Shaqiri for an alternative upfront when Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino missed time or failed to break down a sturdy defence. Jota came with a big price tag but a reputation for exciting attacking play and, most importantly, goal-scoring. He lived up to the hype in the early going, too, bagging five goals in his first eight league games for Liverpool before being struck down by injury. Still only 23, many Liverpool fans believe Jota could be a long-term replacement in the Anfield front line if much-rumoured big-money moves from Spain for Salah or Mane ever materialised.
In scoring the winning goal against Wolves in his first full game back in March, Jota showed glimpses of what might have been for Liverpool’s season had they the luxury of choosing from a full-strength squad. But with Jota back in the team, there remains a chance for Liverpool to kick on down the final straight of the season and claim a place in European competition that seemed unlikely during their torrid midseason form.
Jota also has motivation aside from making a good impression at his new club and living up to that massive price tag. With the Euros looming on the horizon, a run of games domestically for Jota in the final stretch – and ideally, goals to show for it – would keep him in contention for a place in Fernando Santos’ starting XI when the Seleção try to retain their continental title at Euro 2020 this summer.