If Andy Carroll had sensed the pressure mounting on him finally to give some sign that he is capable of living up to his billing at Liverpool, then yesterday's extra one-match ban for Luis Suarez will have left him in no doubt.
The visit of his former club Newcastle United to Anfield tomorrow night will have been a stand-out date on the fixture list for some time for Carroll, falling a month shy of the one-year anniversary of his £35m move from St James' Park. That it now coincides with the first of what could prove many absences for Suarez only makes it all the more auspicious.
The decision by Suarez not to contest a one-match ban for improper conduct for giving Fulham fans the finger at Craven Cottage on 5 December means that he will miss tomorrow's game, the first occasion since he joined Liverpool last January that Kenny Dalglish has not been able to select him. With Dirk Kuyt out of form, the options are slim for the Liverpool manager, whose team are placed 10th for goals scored among Premier League sides this season.
Dalglish returned to his characteristically robust defence of Carroll yesterday, accusing the media at Liverpool's Melwood training ground of having a "bigger problem with Andy Carroll than anyone else". "Some people have got a fertile imagination about the lifestyle that big Andy leads compared to the one that we know he leads," he said, "so he's unfortunate in that he attracts a bit of attention to himself from yourselves."
There is no getting away from the fact that by the end of December last season, Carroll had scored 11 League goals for Newcastle. This time around he has two in the League thus far for Liverpool and, assuming he starts against Newcastle tomorrow, will make his first consecutive League starts since the start of last month. Were it nor for Fernando Torres' more expensive transfer to Chelsea, and the even higher expectations he has failed to live up to, the spotlight on Carroll would be even harsher.
At 22, and still very raw, the situation with Carroll does not yet feel as critical as it does now with Torres at Chelsea. Dalglish has protected him in public with an unyielding conviction although even he must concede in private that one year is quite long enough for any new Liverpool player to find his feet.
Dalglish was in guard-dog mode again yesterday, his default setting when it comes to Carroll, denying any suggestion that the player had "struggled" to settle into life at his new club. "He's not struggling to deal with that but every player here wants to play as many games as he can and if he's not played as many games then I'm sure that will be a point in his Liverpool life. But he's here, he's adapted well to the change and we'll keep working with him because fortunately for Andy, we've got a much greater belief in him than some people that write about him."
Later he pointed out that Carroll's performance in the 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers on Monday had not been as bad as advertised. "The boy played well. The [Blackburn] goalkeeper made a really good save in the first half when Andy volleyed it and he's caught it while sat down two yards away. Then there was the save at the death, he's had a header a couple of inches wide, was involved in a lot of the build-up, he chased people back and won a few tackles. He did plenty."
Sooner or later, however, it will behove Carroll to repay Dalglish's faith and there could scarcely be a better occasion than tomorrow night. He may still be young but he turns 23 a week tomorrow and still has six months on Gareth Bale, whose relatively young age has been no barrier to one of the best calendar years for a young footballer in recent memory. Carroll's former manager Alan Pardew, who was in the unenviable position last January of having to explain the player's departure to Liverpool, said yesterday that he recognised the signs of a player struggling for confidence.
"He [Carroll] is a young player and all young players need confidence. Strikers particularly. Sometimes you need to stay with them. He had some games here when he wasn't brilliant over the course of the season but he was a very important player to this club. The best years for Andy are still ahead of him.
"Going in to the European Championships with England, I don't know many teams that would like to see Andy Carroll on the England team-sheet, but he has to play himself into the squad. It's fair to say at the moment he has not done that. He needs opportunities and a platform to do that also. Maybe with Suarez suspended that will be his opportunity.
"You never want to lose great players and we never wanted to lose him. I would take him back if I had the chance. If the fee wasn't as high as it was then he would still be here. It was a very difficult decision for me. I was 60-40 for keeping him. In terms of the finances of the club there was a strong opinion upstairs. They are my employers. We all looked each other in the eye and said it was going to have to happen."
With the further eight-game ban for Suarez looming, tomorrow's game is a taste of what lies ahead for Liverpool in terms of their striking options. "Every week there's questions [about Carroll]," Dalglish said. "This time it's understandable, I suppose, because he's playing against Newcastle but I don't understand the rest of the stuff." Even just one goal for Liverpool tomorrow would render all that stuff superfluous.
A year to forget: How Carroll's seasons compare
League appearances 23
Goals per game 0.17
(all with Liverpool)
League appearances 40
Goals per game 0.6
(all with Newcastle)
League appearances 29
Goals per game 0.24
(all with Newcastle)