When the German powerhouse picked up an injury in our 4-3 quarterfinal win over Borussia Dortmund, it looked like his season was sadly over; his chances of competing at Euro 2016 in tatters.
Because of the nature of that victory, Reds were too busy celebrating Dejan Lovren’s winner for days afterwards and the importance of Can’s injury perhaps went under the radar.
But Can was our best player against Dortmund, and had gradually established himself as the cornerstone of our side during the previous months. At 22, the midfielder had tied down an automatic spot in the centre, well above captain Jordan Henderson in the pecking order.
His performance before he limped off against Dortmund was typical of his showings this calendar year. Can dominated defensively but showed glimpses of brilliance creatively as well. His assist for Divock Origi’s opener was easily our best of the season, featuring consecutive one-twos and a perfectly weighted through-ball. Physically, he’s astounding – and provides a steely, powerful presence in the frenetic central area. Can has the strength to win possession back through individual battles, but is learning the cleverness required to win it back by positioning himself properly, too.
The Villarreal clash truly is win or bust, and Emre Can – even a 75% fit one – gives us a much better chance of progression. Not since the Anfield games against Manchester City and Chelsea during our title pursuit in 2013/14 have we had a more important upcoming fixture. Obviously the United and Dortmund games of previous rounds were more glamorous, but mess up Thursday and this season goes down as a shocker – despite the occasional fantastic performance and the fact Jurgen Klopp’s now our manager.
By failing to progress we end our chances of Champions League qualification for next season, which will dramatically weaken our hand during this summer’s transfer market. The knock-on effect of drawing or losing tomorrow will not last a few days, but for an entire year.
Klopp’s rarely rushed players back since he took the helm, and his insistence on maximising the fitness of his squad and providing adequate rest time is admirable. But on Thursday, he simply must risk Can. The midfielder is blessed with phenomenal natural fitness, and we’re more than happy to let him rest up during our remaining Premier League games instead.
A midfield pivot without Can looks weak. Lucas and James Milner provide experience and the latter does make things happen, but Can injects class and the ability to burst through centrally with the ball at his feet. Joe Allen is playing well, but lacks Can’s presence. Crucially, the German complements any of the other three – most likely Milner – very well. His power provides a base from which our technical attackers can build, too.
Beating Villarreal, clinching Europa League glory and qualifying for the Champions League will set the tone for Klopp’s tenure, and he needs his midfield general in the side in order to do it. Losing this week is unthinkable, and any risk should be taken to stop it from happening.