Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana’s return to training ahead of schedule has given manager Brendan Rodgers a boost as he heads into a potentially season-defining month.
Lallana was expected to be sidelined for a month with a thigh injury sustained against Leicester on New Year’s Day, but he – along with captain Steven Gerrard - will be fit for next week’s Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
The pair have a chance of featuring against Aston Villa at the weekend but Tuesday’s first leg at home to Jose Mourinho’s side seems more likely.
With striker Daniel Sturridge edging closer to his first appearance for the club since August 31, defender Glen Johnson back in training, Joe Allen also to rejoin the squad this week and Raheem Sterling back from his week-long break in Jamaica, Rodgers has virtually a fully-fit squad in which to tackle an assault on the top four, reach a cup final and make progress in the Europa League.
“He (Lallana) is ahead of schedule in terms of his rehabilitation and we are hoping he can join the group tomorrow to train,” the Reds boss said.
“If he is not available for the weekend he certainly will be by Chelsea.
“He was playing very well (before the injury) and had settled into the club very well. He will get better as his time progresses at the club.”
On whether Gerrard – replaced at half-time in Saturday’s win at Sunderland with tightness in a hamstring – will be fit, Rodgers added: “We’ll see by the end of play tomorrow. If not, then hopefully by the Chelsea game.”
Chief executive Ian Ayre has raised the possibility of the Reds captain returning on loan next January after he joins the Los Angeles Galaxy in the summer.
“The fact that he’s leaving at the end of the season doesn’t mean it’s the last we’ll see of him at Liverpool,” Ayre told Liverpool radio station CityTalk.
“We will keep a regular dialogue with him and I hope we will see him here again in the long term.”
Asked if that could mean a return on loan next January, he said: “It’s conceivable. It happens a lot in MLS, and it’s something we talked to Steven and his representatives about.”
Rodgers, who last week drew a line under the ongoing debate over whether the club could have done more to keep the 34-year-old, insisted he was not looking that far ahead.
“We had a couple of weeks of Steven’s situation where it was at and where it would be in the future. I have nothing more to say on the situation,” he said.
“Steven is still very much at the club so I’m not speculating on when he comes back after leaving in the summer.
“If we take a look at the present he is very much a part of that and that is where our concentration is.”
Rodgers has previously said he does not expect to do much business, if any, in January and the only departures he was looking at were loan deals, but he was unequivocal on the immediate future of Mario Balotelli after continued speculation linking him with a transfer-window move.
The Italy international has scored only two goals – neither in the Premier League – since his £16million summer move from AC Milan.
Balotelli’s former manager Roberto Mancini said the striker was in danger of wasting his career, but Rodgers will persevere with the 24-year-old.
“Roberto knows him very well. I think he (also) said if you work with Mario you should be paid double – I saw that so I will take that on board and speak to the owners on that,” he said.
“All joking aside he (Mancini) has obviously worked with him and he knows him.
“Mario is a good guy and he’s come in here and not scored the goals he or we would have wanted, but we are determined to help him find the solution here so he certainly won’t be going anywhere in January.”
Liverpool have held discussions with Lille over the possibility of ending early Divock Origi’s loan spell but it would require a significant change of heart from the Ligue 1 club, who stipulated as part of the £10m deal last summer the striker had to spend another full season with them.
“He is a player who will definitely be here next summer but whether he will be here in January....there has been some discussion but there is nothing to report on it,” said Rodgers.
“The agreement was with Lille for him to stay there so we will see how that works, but if not we have the players here who are developing and we will go with what we have got.”