Sunday 16 December 2018

Front three take plaudits but 'warrior' Van Dijk has become Liverpool's £75m lynchpin

Dutch colossus has been a major hit for Jurgen Klopp, despite the weighty price tag

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk before the match Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk before the match Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Paul Hayward

Virgil van Dijk says he woke the next morning thinking not of the five goals Liverpool scored but the two late ones they conceded.

Virgil van Dijk says he woke the next morning thinking not of the five goals Liverpool scored but the two late ones they conceded.

Like everyone at the club's Melwood training ground, the world's most expensive defender was denying himself the euphoria a 5-2 Champions League semi-final first-leg win would normally bring.

"Those two goals were still in my mind. It's still a good lead but it could have been a little bit better," he says of the moment he opened his eyes on Wednesday morning. "I know we still need to be happy with a 5-2 lead to take to Rome. But, as a defender, to concede the goals we conceded - it's just like a bit frustrating. It could have been 5-0.

"We'll see what's going to happen over there. They will try everything, but we know we're going to score at least one goal."

With Liverpool on the threshold of a Champions League final in Kiev, the focus shifts from their devil's trident of attackers to the defenders charged with stopping Roma winning 3-0.

And this is where Liverpool could yield their first big dividend on the £75m paid to Southampton in January for Van Dijk, who instantly brings to mind Bill Shankly's invitation to the press when he signed Ron Yeats: "Take a walk around my centre-half, gentlemen, he's a colossus."

Van Dijk is an immensely imposing figure with the potential to join Liverpool's pantheon of centre-back greats alongside Yeats, Tommy Smith, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Jamie Carragher.

In his first major interview since moving to Anfield on January 1, Van Dijk radiated the kind of cool authority that prompts Jurgen Klopp to say: "His body language is brilliant. He looks like a leader, like a warrior, already like a Liverpool player."

For the rest of us, Liverpool v Roma was a carnival, a celebration of Mohamed Salah's talent and generally a good night to be alive.

But at Melwood the next day, the mood was cloudier. The sadness over the attack on a Liverpool fan outside Anfield was palpable, and there was sympathy too for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain over his serious knee injury.

Against the backdrop of Seán Cox's fight for life, the concession of two late goals to Roma hardly mattered, but the new spirit driving Liverpool on in Europe was also visible and Van Dijk is at the heart of it.

As Liverpool's new defensive colossus, he gets a good view of Salah, Roberto ('Bobby') Firmino and Sadio Mané, who reduced Roma's back line to splinters.

"They're so clinical," Van Dijk says. "You don't need to give them a chance because they are so lively, so sharp in front of the goal.

"Everyone wants to do it for each other. The work they put in up front is phenomenal. It's getting a bit under the radar - the work they do defensively and that helps a lot.

"It's a nightmare to play against those three. If you're a ball-playing centre-back who wants to have the ball, you know those three are going to keep pressing you, not once, twice, but for the whole game.

"You don't want to come up against those three."

No, you don't, but Roma will have to do just that once again at the Stadio Olimpico next Wednesday night.

"I definitely have a feeling that we're going to score," Van Dijk says. "We just need to play our game. We had the same situation a bit against City (in the quarter-finals, when they took a 3-0 lead to Manchester). We don't need to go there thinking we only need to defend."

Van Dijk, who has been instrumental in Liverpool's developmental surge in 2018, says he observed signs of the growing chemistry before the Roma game.

"Since I've arrived I've seen it a couple of times - the Man City (Premier League) game at home, when I didn't play, and we won 4-3, and when we played Porto away, and the two legs against Man City as well, which were fantastic to witness, and see what we are capable of when everyone is 100pc at it.

"I've only been here for three months, but it feels like I've been here at least for a season, and I know almost everyone already as much as possible.

"Everyone gets along with one another, everyone wants to fight for each other. And there is also that joy within the team that helps a lot in the games too.

"It's just like everyone's coming here with so much joy to train, and obviously the games, winning helps as well.

"There's just a great atmosphere and motivation to keep going and work hard for each other."

The Anfield crowd also plays its part. "I think it just keeps pushing you on. When you're 1-0 up or 2-0 up sometimes you just need to slow the game a little bit down, but obviously with the fans and the emotion you keep going and keep going. It pushes you on in a positive way. I like the pressure."

Like Klopp, Van Dijk stops short of hanging the best-player-in-the-world garland on Salah but places him "up there".

"Mo has been unbelievable this season. The numbers don't lie, with the goals he's scored, as a winger, and the assists he's been giving.

"It's been one hell of a season for him already. You don't know what can happen. He deserves a lot already for the way he's showed himself in his first season for Liverpool. He's definitely up there, right now, with his current form.

"Those two in Spain (Ronaldo and Lionel Messi - they have been doing it for years, consistently, so that's maybe something for Mo to have in the future. I hope so."

From Van Dijk, you learn how Liverpool really operate, from front to back.

"It's everyone. Everyone's doing their job. The ball needs to be in the goal - and Mo does that, and Bobby and Sadio. The work starts with them.

"Then going back through the midfield and the defenders - hopefully not the goalkeeper.

"We know we need to do it altogether because, even when we want to press, if you don't keep a high line you can't press, because then they can play out.

"Everyone can be happy if we win the game because it's a team job. We have a couple of good goalscorers who do their job very well - but it's all together, yeah.

"The sessions we do, the tactical meetings we have - it's all from high quality. Very good, and I really enjoy working here."

Van Dijk is quick to pay tribute to the role Klopp has played in helping him settle at Liverpool.

"I came here on the first day and had a chat with the gaffer. He told me straight away - 'You don't need to think about any price tag. You're just a football player and you're going to help us achieve more things in the future'.

"He also told me 'You make mistakes as well - you're a human being, so just do your thing.

"Since my arrival it's been going non-stop crazy games - the Champions League with all the stages and a chance to be in the final.

"It's unbelievable, not just for myself but the team, the fans and the club. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster, but the time to think about it is when I'm on the beach somewhere."

There are warm words for Southampton in their relegation fight ("I've got good friends over there and I hope they're going to survive"), but there is no denying the great leap he has made from Premier League danger zone on December 31 to 5-2 Champions League semi-final lead in Rome on May 2.

The Dutchman must feel vindicated in his choice of club? He's amused. "Yeah, it wasn't a bad idea." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Liverpool v Stoke City,

Live, Sky Sports, 12.30

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport