Goalkeeper looking forward to return to former club
At the end of a traumatic week, the last thing Sunderland supporters would appreciate is to be taunted by the sight of a former hero lining up in opposition.
But having been glad to see the back of controversial Paolo di Canio as manager, there were no such sentiments at the loss of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet during the summer.
The immediate feeling among Liverpool supporters, however, was considerably more restrained.
No summer transfer raised eyebrows among the Anfield fanbase more than the one that prompted a changing of the guard between the sticks.
The £9m arrival of Mignolet from the Black Cats, initially as competition for Pepe Reina, ultimately ushered the Spaniard towards the Anfield exit on a season-long loan to Napoli. Despite having been a Premier League fixture with Sunderland for three years and a full Belgium international for the past two, there was a certain element of the unknown to Mignolet.
Early impressions are encouraging.
Mignolet has been a key factor to Liverpool’s start to the season that saw them unbeaten and top of the table until last weekend’s dire 1-0 home reverse to Southampton.
Indeed, but for the 25-year-old’s heroics, Brendan Rodgers’s side could have been on the end of an even heavier defeat.
Statistics, though, can be misleading. The fact only two teams have conceded fewer goals than Liverpool in the top flight this season would suggest a solid defence.
But that no Premier League goalkeeper has made more than the 25 saves Mignolet has been called to complete would indicate the Belgian is being forced to prove his worth more than he would have intended.
He disagrees. “The number of saves doesn't mean the team is not organised,” says Mignolet. “It can also come from the defender doing his job, being in the right position and knowing the goalkeeper is in the right position. As a goalkeeper it is my job to make saves.”
A dramatic last-minute debut penalty stop to preserve opening-day victory over Stoke City has set the tone, Mignolet producing at least one decent stop in each of Liverpool’s subsequent Premier League games.
None, though, have surpassed the triple save that astonished Anfield and frustrated Southampton last Saturday, despite the Saints having the last laugh by becoming the first team to defeat Liverpool since downing Rodgers’s men at St Mary’s back in March.
“Southampton are a team with good organisation, they know how to press and they put us under pressure from the start,” admits Mignolet.
“They blocked our game and we couldn't play how we normally play.
“Full credit to them for blocking us but we have to respond to that and we didn't manage to get the ball going and play how we wanted to play.
“Once we conceded in the second half it was always going to be difficult.”
One more heart-stopping feature – at least for the watching Liverpool fans – of Mignolet’s game is his confidence in passing the ball out to his defenders. While Southampton, having made note of the trait, sought to isolate the keeper, he has no issues with being asked to be the first line of distribution.
“I do that with the national team as well and I am very confident with doing that,” he says. “It is not a problem. There were positives and negatives from this game but we have to look forward.
“We were top of the league before this game. OK, we lost to Southampton but we need to keep going in what we have been doing this season and keep showing our character.
“Obviously we don't want a defeat at home to Southampton but we can either dwell on it and get ourselves down or we can look forward to responding.”
For all his eccentricities, what did for di Canio at Sunderland was a record of just three wins in 13 games and a start to the season that, after last weekend’s 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, left the Black Cats at the foot of the table.
“You never want to see your ex-team at the bottom of the league,” says Mignolet. “I know a lot of people there and not only in the dressing room. I know a lot of people who work there, a lot of supporters and obviously they deserve better. I am sure they will turn it around.”
While Sunderland’s current squad were seemingly lining up to wave di Canio off, Mignolet says he had no issues with the Italian.
“I had a good time working with him,” he says.
“I have learned a lot from all the managers I have worked under. You always pick things up from coaches.”
Of Sunday’s return to the Stadium of Light, Mignolet adds: “It will be a similar game to Southampton. It won't be easy. I know from playing for Sunderland that against the top teams they were always right up for it with the crowd behind them. We have to be at our best.”
There will be a further reunion on Sunday although Fabio Borini, on a season-long loan at Sunderland, is ineligible to play against his parent club.
Liverpool have lost only three times on Wearside since 1958, although the most recent two have come in the last four years.
Rodgers is unlikely to repeat last weekend’s experiment of starting with four centre-backs across the backline.
And, despite injuries elsewhere in the squad, that could mean a scrap for the two central defensive berths that skipper Steven Gerrard believes underlines a competition for places bolstered by Liverpool’s summer transfer business.
“It’s a long season and we’ve already seen how the whole squad will be needed,” says Gerrard.
“Martin Srktel is a great example of that. He was superb against Manchester United in the league and was rewarded for that display by keeping his place in the side.
“Everyone has to be ready when called upon as injuries and suspensions will always come along.
“The manager wants a real competition for places and he is getting closer to that.”