Tuesday 24 April 2018

John Aldridge: Virgil van Dijk gamble is starting to pay off for Liverpool

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk

One of the side-effects of Liverpool's decision to pay £75m to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton last month was the huge pressure it piled on the player to live up to his price tag, yet he is already giving strong hints that he is worth every penny.

The fee Liverpool paid to get Van Dijk was inflated, we all appreciate that, but that is the way the game has gone now and it was a case of joining the madness or being left behind and missing out on a top player.

I was urging my old club to sign Van Dijk for a year before they finally got him. As I sat in the stands while Jurgen Klopp's side demolished FC Porto 5-0 in the Champions League last week, a number of missing ingredients have been injected into this team with the signing of this one player.

Liverpool have lacked leaders in key areas for far too long and while the attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane got all the credit after the thumping win in Portugal that all but booked a Champions League quarter-final spot, Van Dijk (along with Jordan Henderson and James Milner) is already established as a vocal presence.

It is not easy for a player to join a big club like Liverpool and instantly adapt to what is expected of him, but I have been so impressed by Van Dijk's demeanour on and off the field.

He has a nice arrogance about him, an authority Liverpool so badly needed and the centre-backs he has played alongside have looked better standing next to him.

I also like the way he spoke out in the media after the Tottenham players dived to get a few crucial decisions in the 2-2 draw at Anfield earlier this month and in the same interview he also insisted he didn't care if people put pressure on him with such a big price tag on his head.

Van Dijk has ticked a lot of boxes so far and it fuels my belief that he could help to solve one of the enduring issues that has been holding back this Liverpool team for so long, with the centre of their defence a soft spot that has cracked far too often.

With respect to Southampton, the fitness levels demanded by Klopp at Liverpool are a few steps ahead of what Van Dijk has been used to, He will take some time to get to the levels that will be expected of him now, but already he is looking the part.

The Van Dijk influence is not the only reason for Liverpool fans to feel optimistic heading into the final months of the season.

The full-back positions have also been problematic for Klopp, but the performances of young Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson in Portugal should have ended the debate over who his best two players are in those positions. Those two lads are relatively young and might make the odd mistake, but I would be much more content to have them in my team than giving more chances to guys like Alberto Moreno.

I hinted in my Herald column last week that Liverpool were a decent outside bet to pull off a miracle to compare to their 2005 Champions League win by lifting the trophy again in May.

A few people may have sniggered at that suggestion, but a 5-0 away win against FC Porto confirmed that Liverpool have to be taken seriously as Champions League contenders.

A lot of pieces need to fall into the jigsaw if Liverpool are to be crowned as European champions for a sixth time in Kiev in May, but they are now a couple of wins away from the final and we can all dare to dream.

Tottenham's  2-2 draw against Juve, Manchester City’s big win over Basel and Liverpool's demolition of Porto last week set the bar high for English clubs in Europe - and I suspect the two remaining teams will not match them this week.

Chelsea are there for the taking and I’d fancy Barcelona to beat them. I wouldn't be surprised to see Manchester United struggling against Sevilla as well.

Jose Mourinho and his side are not impressing anyone this season and their grip on second place in the Premier League may well have been loosened (indirectly) by Liverpool's 5-0 win in Portugal.

Jurgen Klopp's side are due to travel to Old Trafford a few days after the return leg against Porto and the Liverpool boss will now be able to rest whoever he wants and focus on the United game.

With just two points separating the most successful clubs in English football history in the Premier League and all the momentum on Liverpool's side, things may be about to get very uncomfortable for Mourinho and United.

Read John Aldridge every week in the Herald

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