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Liverpool’s James Milner in vogue
Sometimes the cock crows at midnight, the cats bark a dawn chorus and the cow does
indeed jump over the moon. Just as every now and then a football statistic crops up that goes against every prevailing metric and trend, which seems not so much an anomaly as a case of football simply kicking off its shoes and enjoying itself.
Only the stoniest heart could fail to be cheered a little by the news that James Milner is
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now out there alone as the most incisive creative player over the course of a single season in Champions League history.
Not only has Milner contributed more goalscoring assists than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. He has done it having played fewer minutes than all of them, and while shouldering close to zero creative expectation, performing in effect as a defensive midfielder and occasional full-back.
As Roma wobbled and reeled like a boxer punched out of shape in the second half at Anfield on Tuesday night, Milner’s right-wing corner was headed in by Roberto Firmino to take his own total to a record nine assists this season in world football’s premier club competition. This probably should not be happening. Milner himself was moved to tweet a typically wry response to Uefa’s celebration of
this achievement, in the process sub-referencing and also contradicting his own Boring Milner persona (do keep up).
And yet there it is all the same, tribute to Milner’s underrated precision at set pieces, his fine, accurate crosses with both feet, and indeed to Liverpool’s own strikingly well-drilled team dynamic. All this with a second leg in Rome and quite possibly a final in Kiev to come. For Milner these are some hard-earned, late-breaking high notes to a career spent close to, but often a little in the shadows of, the main stage.
Milner does not start every week for Liverpool. He probably would not have played on Tuesday night if Emre Can were fit. But he is now
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unavoidably central to Jürgen Klopp’s plan for the remainder of the season following the trauma of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s knee injury in the first half at Anfield.
As things stand Liverpool will face Roma, Chelsea and quite possibly Real Madrid or Bayern Munich with only Jordan Henderson, Gigi Wijnaldum and – yes – Europe’s deadliest provider of assists to fill the central midfield.
Not that this should be a concern judging by Tuesday night. Milner’s performance against a team who had beaten Barcelona last time out was good enough to earn him a 7.5 rating from the notoriously sniffy Gazzetta dello Sport, below only Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. And yet there is still an element of double-take to Milner’s presence as a key part of the finest attacking display at this stage of the Champions League since Bayern’s World Cup winners-in-waiting walked through Barcelona’s era-defining club team five years ago.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the current Milner Supremacy is that there are no obvious changes to his game. This is not an act of alchemy, the dramatic discovery
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some hidden superpower by Professor Klopp, wheeling himself in through the conservatory doors, cranium throbbing. At Anfield Milner was simply himself once again, a footballer without a turn of pace, with no eye-catching technical skills, or obvious extreme qualities beyond the vital ones of intelligence, stamina and versatility.
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