Xherdan Shaqiri was left at home for Liverpool’s Champions League group stage clash against Red Star due to fears over his safety in Belgrade.
Many things can rule a player out of a football match: injury, illness, welcoming a child into the world. Yet this season has seen the emergence of another cause – political reasons.
Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan didn’t travel to Azerbijan to play in the Europa League and on Tuesday, Liverpool were unable to call upon Xherdan Shaqiri against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade.
There is the political interpretation of this decision and the footballing one.
From a political perspective, it feels wise not to stoke a fire that requires little prodding.
Kosovo-born Shaqiri was fined 10,000 Swiss Francs for his double-headed eagle celebration against Serbia in the World Cup. The collective incense was due to the meaning behind that celebration, for the eagle is on the Kosovo flag. The independence of Kosovo is not recognised by Serbia.
Yet from a football perspective, Liverpool missed Shaqiri on Tuesday night.
When asked why Shaqiri had been left out, Jürgen Klopp said: “The only thing I can say about it was that it was common sense. It was common sense to make the decision and not to force anything.
“We come here wanting to play football. We have to concentrate on football. We have to focus on football. That’s what we want to do and that is why I made that decision.”
The first part of that justification aligns entirely with the above rationale: don’t fan the flames of a conflict already firmly alight.
Yet the second part was unfulfilled prophecy, as Liverpool succumbed to a surprise defeat against Red Star. The aim was to play football, but the Reds played very little of their best last night.
It does little to dwell on the goals conceded, for that is not where Shaqiri would have affected the game.
Liverpool did have 23 shots, but a paltry four were on target.
It is no secret that Klopp has drip-fed Shaqiri’s minutes so far, and of his seven Premier League appearances, five have been from the bench.
He has only started one game in the Champions League, the reverse against Red Star (in which he scored).
Had that been the scenario in Belgrade, most Liverpool fans would’ve been content – a Shaqiri cameo would’ve offered more than a run-out for Divock Origi (who has long-since disappeared from most fans’ thinking).
In a Liverpool display lacking real creativity, a Shaqiri-Salah link-up would’ve struck fear in Red Star hearts.
There already appears an understanding between the two former Basel players, with Shaqiri providing Salah with a glorious assist v Huddersfield, and Salah returning the favour against Cardiff.
The absence of Shaqiri was enforced by the poor quality of his replacement, with Adam Lallana once again looking woefully off the pace.
Lallana has made five appearances thus far this season (in Premier League & Champions League), and has yet to register a goal or assist.
Contrast that with Shaqiri’s season, which has been limited in a similar way to Lallana’s (minutes-wise).
Yet he has made his minutes count much more effectively.
On Shaqiri’s first Premier League start (against Southampton), it was his excellent free-kick that came off the bar and was subsequently headed in by Salah. His substitution in that game was met with mass consternation.
He was credited with giving Liverpool another dimension when introduced against Cardiff, the game in which he notched his first Liverpool goal.
Shaqiri was also excellent in the reverse fixture against Red Star at Anfield, playing in a hybrid-role behind the front three. He roved across the midfield area, as well as pulling in off each wing – this unpredictability caused havoc and contributed to the comprehensive 4-0 scoreline.
There is a cogent argument that Shaqiri could’ve offered something similar last night, notwithstanding the hostile reception that would’ve been particularly thrown his way.
It’s clear that politics and football will always be intertwined, despite desires to keep the beautiful game pure from its influence. Yet as the world’s biggest sport, football will invariably be used as a vehicle to espouse political beliefs.
Should this reality preclude players from being involved in football matches? Probably not, though in this instance there is little doubt that Klopp made the correct political decision.
It’s simply a shame that the football suffered as a result. With Liverpool’s Champions League Group now wide open, Xherdan Shaqiri will be needed in the fight for qualification.