Liverpool show strength at Genk as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita provide options in midfield

GENK, Belgium -- In the aftermath of Liverpool's 2018 Champions League defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev, manager Jurgen Klopp was in his Formby home when he picked up a framed photograph of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The midfielder, who was crucial to the club reaching European football's showpiece, had suffered damage to multiple knee ligaments a month earlier. Klopp held the image up, telling assistant manager Peter Krawietz as well as a friend -- "Die Toten Hosen" lead singer Campino -- and a German journalist of his sadness at the English midfielder's injury situation.

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He felt as though "Ox" had sacrificed his body to get Liverpool so far, only to be robbed of the chance to affect matters at the most pivotal juncture.

As the squad clapped their supporters at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium following Real's 3-1 victory, Klopp had to compose himself when he saw the player, on crutches, crying into his palms.

On Wednesday night, however, the scenes were markedly different. On his first Champions League start in a year and six months, Oxlade-Chamberlain scored two absolute stunners -- the second worthy of being watched on loop for hours -- as Liverpool eased past Racing Genk 4-1 in Belgium.

Having waited so long for this moment, it took just two minutes for him to tattoo himself on the encounter with a finish into the bottom corner from almost 25 yards out.

In the second half, the drooling emoji decorated social media feeds as Ox hit a first-time shot with the outside of his right boot with such ease and nonchalance that went in off the underside of the crossbar.

"I don't know about the Champions League missing me, but I've definitely missed it!," he said after the match. "It was nice to be back out there. It's a special tournament to play in."

It was during the 5-2 semi-final home victory in this competition against Roma on April 24, 2018, when the dynamo suffered his devastating injury setback. Earlier that month, Ox had delivered a majestic strike against Manchester City, which was his last for the club before he took centre stage on Wednesday at the Luminus Arena in Genk.

It has been a long, challenging and mentally draining journey for the former Arsenal man to manoeuvre. Oxlade-Chamberlain has endured a long spell out and a gruelling rehabilitation schedule, all the while obsessing about getting back to his very best and forcing his way from Liverpool's fringes to the forefront of their midfield thinking.

The 26-year-old even ceded time off during the international breaks to fit in extra sessions and ensure he is in peak physical condition. His progressive play helped the Reds seal the equaliser at Manchester United on Sunday, and it was his double that switched a tricky contest in Genk to a platform for his side to showcase an attacking masterclass.

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Alongside him, Naby Keita -- who has also battled back from troublesome injuries -- made his first Champions League start and was at the heart of Liverpool's progressive play. He made a game-high 118 passes (80 in the opposition half) and still managed to complete 93 percent of them.

The Guinea international had the most touches (138), contested the most duels (14), made the most possession gains (12) and added three tackles and an interception.

That was no surprise to insiders at Melwood, who told ESPN FC that he looked "ready to catch fire" during recent training sessions in which he was the standout performer.

It was the debut of Klopp opting for a midfield trio of Fabinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Keita, which is a more creative and proactive triumvirate than when two of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner are stationed in front of the anchor. The combination is also more risky, but as evidenced against Genk, generates reward in the final third.

With all his options now fit and fighting it out to be part of the starting XI, Klopp has the luxury of altering his personnel based on the specific requirements of each game. Opponents -- as was the case with United at Old Trafford -- have looked to stunt the influence of full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to force Liverpool to build attacks through their midfield.

While Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner have their strengths -- discipline, tactical nous, physicality, experience -- that is not an ideal function for them, given they are not natural linebreakers in the mould of Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Klopp also can turn to Adam Lallana, who converted the equaliser against United, when he needs Liverpool to keep the ball in tight spaces and recycle possession intelligently.

"On Sunday, Adam scored the goal; now Ox has scored two. It's a great story," the manager said of his fit-again weapons.

Teams that have circled the midfield of the European champions as a potential weakness will now know that Klopp has various options to undo their tactical plans in that department.