Richard Buxton: 'Old' Milner is Liverpool's gold
Reds utility player set to play a crucial role as the season enters its finale
As Mohamed Salah makes headlines almost every other week, while Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk earn plaudits and get shortlisted for the PFA Players' Player of the Year Award, James Milner's contributions often go unnoticed.
Liverpool's evergreen midfielder- cum-defender might not grab attention like his more illustrious teammates.
His penchant for the unspectacular has even spawned its own Twitter parody account.
And yet, he could prove to be one of Juergen Klopp's greatest assets in this season's run-in with his reliability and versatility.
A self-deprecating celebration in the Reds' 2-0 win at Cardiff City on Sunday was typical of the 33-year-old.
He mimicked a man walking hunch-backed with an imaginary cane, in response to van Dijk's jibe of him being ''old''.
He prefers to laugh with those who laugh at him.
But, behind the strait-laced persona, lies a player who is more than a mere punchline.
His dependability from the penalty spot has removed any doubts about Liverpool's title credentials over recent weeks, with 10 of his last 12 goals arriving from dead-ball scenarios.
Versatility, however, is the key advantage he holds over his former Manchester City teammates.
Where the reigning champions have regularly scrambled to find suitable alternatives in both midfield and at left-back, Milner routinely slots seamlessly into Anfield's starting line-up.
In the Welsh capital, he was again called upon to plug the gap at a moment's notice when Fabinho's foray was cut short by a clash of heads in his first action against the Bluebirds.
Klopp has regularly asked Milner to go above and beyond in his 3½ years as Liverpool manager.
He spent nearly a full season deputising at left-back when it became clear that Alberto Moreno was not fit for purpose as the first-choice option.
When suspension ruled out Andy Robertson for last month's Champions League last-16 encounter with Bayern Munich, Milner again stepped in with a tidy performance.
An encore may be required in the next fortnight if Klopp's bid to fight on both fronts is to prove successful.
Liverpool's marauding fullbacks are starting to show the physical strain of a season-long slog.
Both Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold appeared visibly drained as they toiled at the Cardiff City Stadium, despite being given a brief reprieve in last week's win over Porto.
Expecting the pair to maintain their current trajectory, through both a gruelling English Premier League finale and a two-legged affair against a swashbuckling Barcelona side in the semi-final of Europe's elite club competition, would be ambitious at best and asking for trouble in the extreme.
Lionel Messi and company would not think twice about exploiting a backline which has continually run itself ragged in the pursuit of perfection over the course of this campaign.
Now is the time when Liverpool's squad depth can, and should, be tested to its maximum.
In Milner and a fit-again Joe Gomez, there is ample coverage to afford Alexander-Arnold and Robertson an overdue rest for at least the showdown with the Spanish champions.
A largely settled midfield line-up of Fabinho, Naby Keita and one of either Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, coupled with Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain's imminent return, negates the need for Milner to fill the void in his preferred position for the foreseeable future.
City continue to hold all the cards in the title race.
Should they win all of their remaining games, Anfield's lengthy wait for the championship will tick over into a third decade. If they don't, Liverpool have an unlikely ace up their sleeve.
- Huddersfield (Saturday, Home)
- Barca ( May 2, Away, Champions League)
- Newcastle (May 5, A)
- Barca (May 8, H, Champions League)
- Wolves (May 12, H)
- Man United (Thursday, A)
- Burnley (Sunday, A)
- Leicester (May 7, H)
- Brighton (May 12, A)
- Watford (May 19, FA Cup final)
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