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All Change At The Back?

With Anfield legend Jamie Carragher retiring and the rumoured departure of Pepe Reina gathering impetus, what next for the Liverpool back-line and will one-time stalwart, Martin Skrtel, form part of it?

Paul Gilham

When one begins a project with an expected duration of multiple years, it is only fair to assume that an element of continuity will be as vital as the changes made whilst the new broom sweeps clean. Nowhere, in any team, is such consistency of personnel more vital than in the defence -- the five-man barrier between the opposition's attack and their attempts to soil a clean sheet.

Over the decades Liverpool's finest teams have been built on the understanding and trust forged by settled and well-acquainted defences. The hypnotic rituals of interplay and habitual movement were established as Hansen side-footed to Nicol, who rolled it back to Grobbelaar and years later Hyypia nodded down to Reina, who bowled out to Carragher.

Sadly, it seems that after a season in which there has already been woeful inconsistency in the rearguard's make-up, due to injury and loss of form, the chaos is only about to increase as we enter the second season of Brendan Rodgers' tenure. This campaign has seen Martin Kelly lost to long-term injury, Andre Wisdom and Jose Enrique suffer serious knocks and Martin Skrtel's form taper-off so badly, he was unceremoniously dumped for the veteran from Bootle.

Carragher will finish his playing days when the season ends and much has been said about the seriousness of the loss, not least by the manager himself. However, the centre-half's renaissance has disguised the fact that most of us believed his time was up long ago. The partnership of Agger and Skrtel was firmly established under Dalglish and began the Rodgers era as first choice too. The poor form of the Slovak forced the manager's hand but Carragher's solidity and intelligence have muddied the waters.

Nobody was anything but pleased with the pair that started the season as the core of Liverpool's defence. In a generally disappointing final spell under Dalglish, they were immense. Is Skrtel now ready to reclaim his place alongside the Danish captain? What of his own inflammatory quotes about being dropped and the persistent links with a return to Zenit St. Petersburg? His confidence cannot be high, but his colleague, Enrique, had some very interesting words of a frank and yet supportive nature.

"Carra is the type of player who wants to play all the time," the Spaniard told Press Association Sport. "You cannot say anything about a player who has played more than 700 times. And I know it has been a difficult year for Skrtel because he has not been playing as much but last year he was the best centre-back and this year he is the worst."

Lest he be mistaken, the left-back is quick to underline the talent his bullet-headed colleague possesses. Skrtel, he insists is an excellent defender and can once again join Agger, as half of the league's finest pairing.

"But I train every day with Martin and he is a top centre-back. For me, Danny and Martin are the best centre-back partnership in the Premier League. You can have one year good, one year bad. It happened to me. The players who play in the Premier League are there because they have quality and confidence. It is all about confidence. Martin is an incredible lad and a top player."

With Rodgers showing precious little faith in his Uruguayan international, Sebastian Coates, there seems to be a real possibility looming that Agger is the only established centre-half that will remain after the summer's dealings on the transfer market have been completed. Into this unstable mixture, we can now add the name of the man who has been custodian at Liverpool Football Club since 2006.

Yesterday, as rumours about the departure of Manc overlord Alex Ferguson were gathering the whiff of veracity, another familiar story was re-emerging. Pepe Reina, insisted noted Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, is very close to a switch to Barcelona on a two year contract.

This, of course, is not even a vaguely original concept but Balague seems to feel that his high wages and Liverpool's desire for squad regeneration may lead to the kind of perfect storm in which a move is inevitable. When one factors-in the desire of Victor Valdes to move and Barcelona's dire need of defensive stability, it is easy to draw some obvious conclusions.

Were Reina to join the express train leaving Anfield in the summer, the transfer window will assume an almost hysterical level of import (and export). All of a sudden, the serene segue into stage two of the Rodgers' grand plan would become a desperate panic-ridden attempt to fill the massive gaps with limited funds.

Under such circumstances wise and sanguine decisions are rarely made. Instead, rashness is the order of the day or, paradoxically, a kind of paralysis as "the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought'' and an excess of procrastination ensues. This summer then -- another massive one for Liverpool Football Club. We've been here before. It was irritating then too.

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