At long last, Nathaniel Clyne, the forgotten man, has returned to Liverpool training.

The England international has not played a single game for the Reds this season, but his protracted comeback represents a welcome boost.

Clyne had already endured a lengthy spell on the sidelines when it was decided in November that surgery was necessary, ruling him out for a further three months.

There were few glimpses of the once ever-present defender in that time, aside from an appearance in the club’s version of Carpool Karaoke and a bizarre cameo on US television, and there have been disturbing murmurs of unsavoury off-field antics.

But what matters now is what happens on the pitch. And Clyne faces a real battle to regain the starting spot which was all but assured when he last featured.

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Joe Gomez, another plagued by injury, had made just three appearances over the course of 2016/17 season and looked set to play second fiddle to the club’s starting centre-halves.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, was still emerging as an exciting youth prospect. He’d played 12 times, considerably more than Gomez, though nearly half of those outings came in virtually unrecognisable domestic cup line-ups.

Neither seemed to pose an immediate threat to a player who had racked up a near-century of appearances in just two seasons at the club.

But Clyne’s injury has opened the door and allowed both to showcase their talents. In many respects, it was the opportunity they needed.

Joe Gomez remains unreliable, demonstrating an occasional tendency to switch off at key moments or concede a silly foul with a reckless challenge.

HUDDERSFIELD, ENGLAND – Tuesday, January 30, 2018: Liverpool’s Joe Gomez during the FA Premier League match between Huddersfield Town FC and Liverpool FC at the John Smith’s Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But, putting those blunders aside, he has been close to magnificent at times. When on form, he often proves to be a man-of-the-match contender as he puts his impressive power to good use, bullying opponents and holding his own under the spotlight.

Perhaps the best indicator of his promise was his exemplary display when faced with the daunting task of marking Neymar in his country’s goalless draw with Brazil.

Performances like that have convinced many fans that, in the long-term, Gomez will become a key player for Liverpool, whether on the right-hand side of defence or in his preferred central role.

Alexander-Arnold has been just as impressive. As he begins to settle into the side and earn vital experience, he looks increasingly comfortable and mature.

Already the local lad has proven to the manager that he is worthy of regular league starts, and he is now relentlessly nipping at Gomez’s heels.

Clyne has largely been a beacon of solidity in a perennially fragile back line, but his end product was lacking in the final third.

Thus, Alexander-Arnold, who has fizzed in a series of dangerous balls from the flanks and shown himself to be capable of the spectacular from range, represents a genuine threat.

Where, then, does Clyne stand? Even though there are three months of the season remaining, it seems unlikely that he will see an awful lot of him before the campaign is out.

nathaniel clyne

STOKE-ON-TRENT, ENGLAND – Saturday, April 8, 2017: Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne in action against Stoke City during the FA Premier League match at the Bet365 Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“It is absolutely too early to think about him,” Klopp stressed on Tuesday. “It will take time until he is able to play.”

He has not played a game of football since July and, if Adam Lallana’s comeback is anything to come by, Klopp will be sure to gently ease him back into action to ensure he does any aggravate any lasting niggles.

Even when he is fully fit, the manager will likely continue to rotate relentlessly and may be reluctant to risk handing a player strapped of game-time a start in possibly decisive matches.

The more interesting question, then, is where Clyne stands in the long-term. It’s easy to forget his qualities as young talents burst onto the scene, but Klopp will no doubt remember.

The former Southampton man is arguably one of the best full-backs in the division and perhaps it is a marker of his ability that he was, for the most part, able to escape criticism for the club’s defensive woes.

Clyne, then, is a dependable option, but maybe Klopp will choose to shake things up and ensure the development Gomez and Alexander-Arnold does not slow to the point of stagnation.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Sunday, February 4, 2018: Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

At the moment, his solidity separates him from his former deputies, but if they can cut out their brief lapses, as we would eventually expect, all three begin to look virtually even-matched.

It is admittedly conceivable that Clyne’s long-awaited reintegration will allow Gomez to move into the centre-back role, which would certainly ease the pressure.

But the upward trajectory of Alexander-Arnold has been somewhat staggering, and if Clyne is to see off the competition, he’ll have to find another level.

This is surely a prime example of how battling for places can bring out the best in players, and Liverpool find themselves blessed with rare depth in the full-back positions.

Crucially, Alexander-Arnold is seven years Clyne’s junior, and as it stands you’d say it’s a matter of if, rather than when, he becomes the club’s number-one right-back.

Yes a slump, or worse, is possible, but it would be a shock to see renowned man-manger Klopp fail to unlock the 19-year-old’s potential.

Nathaniel Clyne decides when that graduation will be. A star player for Southampton and previously a stalwart under Klopp, he has not faced a challenge like this for a long time.

So now we eagerly wait to see who responds better to the test. To embrace the cliché, Clyne is the relative master, and Alexander-Arnold the budding apprentice.

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Avid Liverpool supporter and aspiring Sports Journalist.

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