Amongst the records sent tumbling this season, the most assists from a Champions League campaign may fade into the background once the season finally comes to rest.
For James Milner, the new holder of this title with nine so far, it’s a record that will most likely be cherished with a satisfyingly wry smile.
The 32-year-old utility man was written off by many over the past few seasons but is arguably in the form of his life at present.
With statistics now forming to back up his resurgence, it surely can’t be much longer before Gareth Southgate tries to sweet-talk the midfielder into donning a new cap.
James of all trades
Tagged as having a boring persona, it is terms such as reliable, dependable and hard-working which Milner’s name instantly conjures. While none of these are bad traits to possess, football now exists on a plane where plain is undesirable.
Although he wasn’t completely pushed to the edges of Manchester City’s squad, Milner only started 89 Premier League games from a possible 190 before leaving on a free to join Liverpool.
His first season on Merseyside saw him clock up more than 1750 Premier League minutes (2409) for the first time since the 2010/11 season with a further 3154 following during last season’s campaign.
Yet it was his versatility which was a key reason for this, finding himself used primarily as a right-back for much of last season.
The comeback kid
After bursting onto the scene 16 years ago as the, then, youngest player to score a Premier League goal, Milner has suffered from a lack of glamour to his game.
Perceived as a water-carrier rather than an integral cog in the team, his efforts have often gone unrecognised.
This quite possibly contributed to his decision to retire from international football at the start of the 2016/17 season, a choice made in order to spend more time with his young family according to an FA statement.
It’s also a decision which will undoubtedly have helped his fitness levels throughout this season, allowing for more recovery periods during international breaks.
The here and now
The loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 18th minute of last night’s win over Roma could very well have proved a huge problem to Liverpool’s plans. However, Milner was at the centre of his manager’s solution.
Midway through the first half, Jürgen Klopp switched his team to a 3-5-2 formation with Milner dropping deep as a third centre-back. This allowed the Liverpool wing-back’s much more freedom in the game and saw the momentum swing heavily in the Reds favour.
This more defensive role also saw Milner unfortunate to concede a late penalty for Roma’s second reply. However, his overall contribution in the game more than made amends for this. Milner’s influence on the central area of the field went a long way to preventing Radja Nainggolan exerting his own.
That this level of performance was of no surprise to either Klopp or the Liverpool fans who have watched him play in recent months is testament to the consistency he’s brought to Liverpool’s midfield this season.
Lions lacking midfield bite
The loss of Oxlade-Chamberlain to what appears to be a long-term injury does, however, cause a problem for England. Already short of options in the central area, the thought of losing a player in good form and who fits the system will be a bitter blow for Gareth Southgate.
With Dele Alli being better deployed in a more attacking position, Adam Lallana and Ruben Loftus-Cheek both yet to prove their fitness and Wayne Rooney looking to be in serious decline, there are few options currently open for England in this position.
The versatility offered by Milner is similar to that of Eric Dier, although, the Liverpool player also has much more of an attacking edge to his game.
It’s not unfathomable that these two could play together in a 4-2-3-1 formation but on current form, Milner holds an advantage over Dier. This is especially true considering Milner already has an understanding with Jordan Henderson who should be in England’s starting lineups.
Answering the call?
Having reiterated his determination to resist the lure of international football less than a month ago, there’s a huge question mark hanging over whether Milner can be talked into adding to his 61 England appearances.
There’s also the fact that England are currently trying to focus on bringing younger players into the fold but the experience and leadership qualities Milner would bring could easily prove priceless.
These are qualities to which all of his former manager’s have enthused over and also characteristics which have commonly been cited as missing from England teams over recent years.
Milner may not hold onto his assist record in the Champions League beyond the end of this season, such is the proliferate of the Liverpool forwards this term.
He could though play a starring role for his country on the evidence of the last few months. The only thing appearing to stand in the way of this is his refusal to retract his retirement but, ironically, it’s dogged determination which has got him into this position in the first place.
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