Cool Van Dijk feels ready to weather incoming blue storm
Liverpool will need Dutch defender's calmness in what could be a cauldron, writes Chris Bascombe
There have been times since Virgil van Dijk's £75 million arrival at Liverpool when it seemed Jurgen Klopp not only bought a classy centre-back, but a Zen master.
An aura of assured tranquillity has found a place in Liverpool's back four.
If Van Dijk can maintain such poise amid the turbulence of tonight's Champions League quarter-final, Manchester City will meet more formidable opponents than the side who conceded five on their last visit to the ground.
When asked if he has always been so calm amid the toughest challenges, Van Dijk offers a smile.
"Sometimes a little too much," he says. "Sometimes that cost me back in the days, to be fair. I'm never nervous. I am just excited. I think, 'Look where I am. Playing for the semi-finals of the Champions League with my team. Just enjoy it and love it'.
"If everything goes well I will play until 36/37 hopefully and then football is over, so just enjoy it. That is why I started to play football and why I wanted to do it day in, day out. Sometimes you lose, but if you win, the feeling is amazing."
Van Dijk's impact can be measured statistically: Liverpool have kept eight clean sheets in their past 12 fixtures.
Beyond these figures, anyone watching over the last three months can see how profound is the difference between the defence which wilted under the slightest pressure at the start of the season, and last week prevented the most productive strike force in the country from having a shot on target.
The only time Van Dijk has baulked since his move from Southampton is when it is suggested he is the catalyst for improvement.
"Obviously you guys talk about that but I don't take credit on my own for that," he said. "It is the whole way we defend. If you look closely at what those three up front do collectively and then the guys behind, it makes it so much easier for us. Then obviously there is Loris (Karius), the last line.
"The guys up front put the work in, which is magnificent. Overall, the left-back, right-back, centre-backs, Loris, midfielders and forwards are putting in the work, and then on the training field with the manager.
"Everyone around us is fantastic and should be proud of how we defend and how many goals we have scored. Without the help of everyone else Mo (Salah) would not have so many goals. Everyone is doing their bit."
That said, Van Dijk knew when he signed that the onus was on him to change perceptions of Liverpool's back four. If Liverpool avoid heavy defeat at the Etihad Stadium, Van Dijk's influence over both legs will be as significant as that of Klopp's attacking trio. It is a responsibility he accepts.
"To be fair, yeah, I like pressure anyway," he said. "You want the challenge and to have every day that feeling you need to push yourself. Otherwise it becomes a little boring. I think with Liverpool every day is a challenge in training. You are playing against one of the best strikers in Europe. I am enjoying every bit of it. It makes me keep going and will make me better every day.
"I want to sit down when I am retired and think I did everything possible to get the best out myself, not to be thinking, 'I should have done that or worked a little bit harder'.
"I think it is only other people who put pressure on me but I don't care really. Every game I need to step up and show like every other player that I can do well. That's Liverpool. It is not only Tuesday, it was Saturday, the game we played already against City. But those games were definitely a reason why I wanted to play for Liverpool.
"I am enjoying every bit of it. I love the club already. I knew from day one we made the (right) decision."
Liverpool were in protective mode in the second half at Anfield, but Van Dijk doubts they will seek only to preserve their lead in Manchester.
"I would rather be on our side 3-0 up, that is pretty clear," he said. "It is a mental thing. We need to be ready and prepare for anything they do."
They need to come at us. But we cannot go there and think we are going to defend. We have to play our game.
"We always have opportunities to score a goal and we need to keep it tight. I think we approach the game as though it is still 0-0. We want to win this game - that's the mindset."
(© Daily Telegraph, London)