If one had made a list before the season began, ticking off the players most important in determining the success or failure of Liverpool's campaign, most would have gone through the same five names: Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard, and Luis Suarez. Of those five, three are injured and one is horribly off-form as the club head into their most important league match of the season against an Arsenal side seven points ahead in fourth place but with Liverpool holding a game in hand.
Win that game in hand and defeat Arsenal, and the gap between Liverpool and at least one of their three competitors for fourth narrows to just one point with eleven rounds remaining. Lose or draw, and fourth becomes all but mathematically impossible barring a complete implosion by the clubs ahead of them.
Against that backdrop, Liverpool head into Saturday with Luis Suarez continuing the largely poor run of form he's struggled with ever since accusations of racism were levelled at him by Patrice Evra in October. They head into Saturday still trying to find some semblance of balance in midfield in the wake of a November injury to Lucas they've never managed to compensate for. They head into Saturday without Gerrard after the captain picked up a knock in a meaningless international friendly and without the midfield options they traded away in the summer when choosing to gamble on him staying fit through an entire season. And they also go into it without Daniel Agger, lost just as it seemed he had finally begun to put his persistent injury concerns behind him.
Of the players most would have considered integral to success in August, only Pepe Reina remains both fit and playing at something like his expected level. All of which makes for a tough ask on Saturday for the players who will need to step up in place of injured or mis-firing stars. It isn't all doom and gloom, however: At the front, and despite a rough outing against Cardiff City, in recent weeks Andy Carroll has appeared to finally be turning something of a corner in his development with Liverpool. And at the back, Martin Skrtel has surprised many with the best season of his career while flanked by arguably the best fullback pairing in the Premier League.
But there will be difficult gaps to fill, and perhaps the most difficult one will be the gap left by Daniel Agger's cracked rib. Gerrard's layoff is expected to be short; Lucas' absence is a well-worn topic despite that it has never been given a satisfactory answer; and when it comes to Suarez an approach mostly involving the crossing of fingers seems to have been agreed upon by all. Which leaves a spot up for grabs alongside Johnson, Skrtel, and Enrique in the back line to fill, and two potential candidates to fill it with.
Jamie Carragher might seem the obvious choice: He's Liverpool's vice-captain; the man with the experience; the man with countless last-ditch tackles to his name. He's the local legend. And he also began the season as one of the club's starting centre backs until the play—and unusual fitness—of Agger and Skrtel pushed him to the side. As such, he seems the default choice. The deposed incumbent patiently waiting to reclaim his rightful role.
He also seems, for all that he has lost a step or two in recent years, the safe choice. He may drag the defensive line ten yards deeper, and he may be overly eager to abandon the passing game in favour of sending the ball arcing towards the stadium lights, and there's even an argument to be made that Martin Skrtel's massive uptick in form has come as much from the fact he's no longer tethered to the old warhorse as anything. But at the end of the day all of that comes up hard against one fact: For good or ill, he's Jamie Carragher. He may not be the player he once was, but he's still a strong, experienced defender who often finds a way to deliver when the games matter most.
On the other side, however, is Sebastian Coates. For all the talk of Carragher's experience, it cannot be forgotten that his competition to fill the vacancy in defence won young player of the tournament at the Copa America, playing every knock-out game through the finals with Uruguay as they captured South America's top prize. He may not have Carragher's experience in the Premier League, but he's hardly some untested kid plucked from the academy or reserves level.
He's also a player who has spent most of his career on the left side of defence, something that would allow Liverpool's player of the season Skrtel to remain on the right where he's more comfortable. Not to mention he's far more able to carry the ball out of defence than Carragher and would allow the defensive line to stay higher up the pitch. Still, he's young and would almost certainly make mistakes because of that, as in each of his previous appearances for Liverpool he's made at least one major one.
All of which leaves a choice between a player who may make mistakes from a relative lack of experience or one who may make mistakes because of his inevitable physical decline. If it was up to you to choose who steps in for the injured Daniel Agger, then, would you return to the past one last time with Jamie Carragher, or gamble on the future being ready now with Sebastian Coates?