After joining Liverpool in a time of empty stadiums, Diogo Jota’s devastating early impact hasn’t received the recognition it deserves. That can change against AC Milan.
Imagine for a moment that you signed with Liverpool FC. Imagine your Anfield debut was a Premier League game against Arsenal. Imagine being invited for the last 10 minutes to join Mo Salah and Bobby Firmino.
Imagine a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross coming towards you from the edge of the box just nine minutes later. Imagine controlling the ball on your thigh and volleying it over it.
Imagine watching the ball bounce a few times before sneaking in on the far post, just in front of the head, for a 3-1 win.
Imagine what this moment – a goal for Liverpool on your home debut at the Kop end – would feel like.
Now imagine it again in an empty stadium. Imagine it happens in Anfield without Liverpool fans. Imagine your big moment being filled with silence, aside from a few cheers from your teammates. Imagine if none of your family or friends were 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 one of the most exciting experiences of his life.
Instead of getting the admiration of more than 50,000 Reds for just taking nine minutes to act in a big game on Anfield Road, he got a hug from Fabinho and Blurs Song 2, which passed through an empty stadium over the PA- System echoed.
You have to make the best of dire situations, but I bet Jota went home that night thinking it wasn’t quite what it could have been. It wasn’t exactly Kevin Keegan’s moment that it should have been.
Last month, 50 years ago, it took Keegan just 12 minutes to score on his Anfield debut in a 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest. His goal also fell at the end of the Kop and, in a strange parallel, was a shot that ricocheted off a few times before sneaking into the same far post.
The big difference for Keegan was that he had a moment that immediately connected him to the Kop, to Liverpool supporters.
There were 51,000 at Anfield that day and Keegan had the full home debut experience. Jota missed it and so doesn’t have the relationship with Liverpool supporters that he should have. Make no mistake, this fellow is an absolute class.
Before the Leeds game, Jota’s goals per minute ratio was the second best of any Liverpool player to have played more than 30 games in our history.
A goal every 130 minutes was equal to John Aldridge and three minutes better than Mo Salah. And their sums include penalties. Only Fred Pagman (30 goals in 39 games on both sides of World War I) has a better relationship.
Since signing for the Reds, Jota’s shot conversion is also the fourth best in the Premier League of anyone with 50+ shots on goal. Off the ball, only Sadio Mane has put more pressure on his opponents this season.
And who was it who scored the crucial opening goals in our first two Premier League wins of the season against Norwich and Burnley?
His first appearance was in the group stage of the Champions League last season for Atalanta. Jota scored a hat trick in the 5-0 win, another feat for which he is not half as adored as he would have been if the traveling Kop had been in Italy or if the Anfield crowd returned him for the next home game would have welcomed against Leicester, in which he also scored.
Liverpool supporters have always admired goal scorers.
The Anfield audience is building a special report with them, but Jota hasn’t really had that yet, with the lack of songs – somewhat understandably, in fairness – being a tell-tale sign to him.
So if I had a wish for Liverpool vs. AC Milan, Jota’s first European Anfield evening in front of a crowd, it would be that it be his night. That he plays, he scores, he gets the winner and the Kevin Keegan moment that goes with it.
We are not now in 1971. Direct comparisons between Keegan and Jota as footballers are of little relevance.
The number 20 jersey is unlikely to achieve the legendary status that the number 7 had after Keegan scored 100 goals in it before handing it over to Kenny Dalglish. Teenage Scousers don’t copy Jota’s hairstyle like they did on King Kev’s ’71. But for me, the Reds have a striker in Jota who can have a similar impact in the 2020s.
Keegan scored 11 goals in his first season with LFC. Jota scored 13. Keegan scored 22 goals in his sophomore season with LFC. I could imagine Jota doubling its balance this time yew he is given the opportunity. What it 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 great return for a player who is not called for as the traditional number 9 by his manager.
But last season was the first one in which Firmino failed to score double goals, and he was beaten 13-9 by Jota despite playing 18 more games.
Firmino defeated Jota, however, 9-1 after assists with seven of the goals he scored from Salah and Mane.
And that is the dilemma. Jota is a better center-forward than Firmino – statistics suggest he is tea the most clinical finisher in the roster – but would it be at the expense of the goals for Salah and Mane to play him more often in front of Bobby?
There is only one way to find out. Try it.
Give him a longer run as a center-forward and see how it goes because when you have a striker who essentially scores every other game – 11 goals in 21 starts at the time of writing – then Diogo Jota is spending more time on it the place the better.
* Chris McLoughlin is Senior Writer for Reach Sport, Editor of the Liverpool FC Matchday Program and the monthly magazine. You can subscribe to both or the Liverpool vs. AC Milan program here.