Having joined Liverpool at a time of empty stadiums, Diogo Jota‘s devastating early impact has not quite been given the adulation it deserves. That can change against AC Milan.
Imagine just for a moment that you’ve signed for Liverpool FC. Imagine your Anfield debut is a Premier League game against Arsenal. Imagine you’re brought on for the final 10 minutes to join Mo Salah and Bobby Firmino up front.
Imagine a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross being headed out to you on the edge of the box just nine minutes later. Imagine controlling the ball on your thigh and hitting it on the volley.
Imagine seeing the ball bounce a couple of times before seeing it creep in at the far post, right in front of the Kop, to complete a 3-1 win.
Imagine how that moment – scoring for Liverpool on your home debut at the Kop end – would feel.
Now imagine it again in an empty stadium. Imagine it happening with no Liverpool fans inside Anfield. Imagine your big moment being met with silence bar a few cheers from your team-mates. Imagine none of your family or friends being there to enjoy and share the moment.
That was the reality for Diogo Jota last season. He lived that moment and he’ll never get it back. The coronavirus pandemic robbed him of what would have been one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
Instead of receiving the adulation of 50,000+ Reds for taking just nine minutes to make an Anfield impact in a big game, he got a hug from Fabinho and Blur’s Song 2 echoing around an empty stadium over the PA system.
You’ve got to make the most out of bad situations, but I bet Jota went home that night thinking it wasn’t quite what it could have been. It wasn’t quite the Kevin Keegan moment that it should have been.
Fifty years ago last month, Keegan took just 12 minutes to score on his Anfield debut in a 3-1 win against Nottingham Forest. His goal also came at the Kop end and, in a weird parallel, was a shot that bounced a few times before creeping in at the same far post.
The big difference for Keegan was he had a moment that instantly connected him with the Kop, with Liverpool supporters.
There were 51,000 inside Anfield that day and Keegan got the full home debut experience. Jota missed out and as a result hasn’t yet got the rapport with Liverpool supporters that he should have. Because make no mistake about it, this lad is an absolute class act.
Going into the Leeds game, Jota’s goals-per-minute ratio was the joint-second best of any Liverpool player to make 30+ appearances in our history.
A goal every 130 minutes was equal to John Aldridge and three minutes better than Mo Salah. And their totals included penalties. Only Fred Pagman (30 goals in 39 games either side of World War I) has a better ratio.
Since signing for the Reds, Jota’s shot conversion is also the fourth-best in the Premier League from anyone to have 50+ shots on goal. Off the ball, only Sadio Mane has pressed opponents more times this season.
The first time he played through the middle was away to Atalanta in last season’s Champions League group stage. Jota netted a hat-trick in a 5-0 win, another display he isn’t half as revered for as he would have been had the travelling Kop been in Italy, or if the Anfield crowd had welcomed him back for the next home game against Leicester, in which he also scored.
Liverpool supporters have always adored goalscorers.
The Anfield crowd builds a special rapport with them, but Jota hasn’t really had that yet, with the lack of song for him – somewhat understandably, in fairness – a tell-tale sign.
So if I had one wish for Liverpool vs. AC Milan, Jota’s first Anfield European night in front of a crowd, it would be that it is his night. That he plays, he scores, he gets the winner and the Kevin Keegan moment that would go with it.
We’re not in 1971 now. Direct comparisons between Keegan and Jota as footballers have little relevance.
The No. 20 shirt is unlikely to gain the legendary status that the No. 7 did after Keegan scored 100 goals in it before handing it over to Kenny Dalglish. Teenage Scousers aren’t copying Jota’s hairdo like they did with King Kev in ’71. But as far as I’m concerned, in Jota the Reds have a striker who can make a similar impact in the 2020s.
Keegan got 11 goals in his first season with LFC. Jota got 13. Keegan got 22 goals in his second season with LFC. I could imagine Jota doubling his tally this time around if he is given the opportunity to. Which he should be.
You won’t hear me say a bad word about Firmino. Eighty-eight goals and 63 assists in just under 300 games is a superb return for a player who isn’t asked to be a traditional No. 9 by his manager.
But last season was the first in which Firmino didn’t reach double goalscoring figures, and he was outscored 13-9 by Jota despite making 18 more appearances.
However, Firmino did beat Jota 9-1 on assists with seven of the goals he created scored by Salah and Mane.
And that’s the quandary. Jota is a better goalscoring centre-forward than Firmino – the stats suggest he’s the most clinical finisher in the squad – but would playing him more often ahead of Bobby come at the expense of goals for Salah and Mane?
There’s only one way to find out. Try it.
Give him a prolonged run at centre-forward and see how it goes, because when you’ve got a striker who is essentially scoring in every other game – 11 goals in 21 starts at the time of writing – then the more time Diogo Jota spends on the pitch the better.
* Chris McLoughlin is Senior Writer for Reach Sport, publishers of the Liverpool FC Matchday Programme and monthly magazine. You can subscribe to both or order the Liverpool vs. AC Milan programme here.