Friday 20 September 2019

Stephen Hunt: 'This is just a blip for Guardiola and I expect a positive response'

'Three defeats in the last four league games has left Pep Guardiola in the unusual position of chasing in a league title race' Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
'Three defeats in the last four league games has left Pep Guardiola in the unusual position of chasing in a league title race' Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Stephen Hunt

A couple of months before Virgil van Dijk joined Liverpool, I was at Walsall on a dark and cold Tuesday night to watch the Dutch defender play for Southampton reserves against Aston Villa.

I use the term 'play' loosely. He was horrendous and looked like he had downed tools at that stage of his Saints career. He was a shadow of the outstanding defender who, along with the goalkeeper Alisson Becker, has transformed the Liverpool defence this season. They were the missing pieces in Jurgen Klopp's jigsaw.

If you remember, Southampton initially blocked Van Dijk's move to Anfield in summer 2017, prompting him to do something I would simply never expect of a footballer - he effectively stopped playing for six months. He was coming back from injury in the game at Walsall and was going through the motions to get match-fit.

But what a player he is. Although he could have joined Manchester City or Chelsea, or any club in Europe for that matter, his heart was set on Liverpool. I can imagine that he went to Chelsea, for example, and felt it was a heartless place at that time whereas Liverpool felt warm and welcoming.

No doubt Klopp makes a difference too. He is a manager players want to play for, but Anfield has always been a special place for players and they are an attractive club again. Neutrals enjoy watching a Liverpool team play good football.

Three defeats in the last four league games has left Pep Guardiola in the unusual position of chasing in a league title race, but this is just a blip for Manchester City and I expect the champions to respond positively against Southampton today before they play Liverpool on Thursday night.

Having watched Southampton lose to West Ham last week, it is going to be a real struggle for them against City. Perhaps new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl has been working them too hard to get his pressing game into his players, but they looked tired in the 2-1 defeat.

It takes time for players to adapt to a drastic change of style and system and Hasenhuttl will be trying to get his message across at the same time as winning important football matches. This is a tough period for Southampton and if ever there was an away banker, it is at St Mary's today.

Sure, there will be times when they close City down and the crowd will give them a lift, but Guardiola's team can pass around them and score goals because they are playing for their places in the game against Liverpool.

All eyes will be on Thursday's game. It promises to be another brilliant game between two exceptionally talented teams and the outcome will most likely depend on who the star performers are on the night.

I expect Kevin De Bruyne to get 70 minutes against Southampton today - more minutes on the clock to get him ready for Thursday. City seem to be easing him back from injury this time. Roberto Firmino has been very influential for Liverpool in the last few games as the link between Mo Salah and Sadio Mané and I think he will have a major say for Klopp's team.

Back to the game at St Mary's last week and I have to say there are not many better holding midfielders in the Premier League at the moment than Declan Rice. It is no surprise that West Ham have moved to secure him with a new long-term deal as I have no doubt that his performances this season will have been catching the eye of some of the bigger clubs.

To my mind, Rice has huge potential. He is another 10 per cent away from being exceptional. The big test for him now is to maintain the level of his performances since he became a regular in the first team this season.

Rice is as good a ball-playing centre-half as Manchester City's John Stones or Leicester's Harry Maguire, and yet the midfield position West Ham are using him in is his best on performances so far. He has that natural ability to see danger and close down the opposition quickly while making it all look so easy. His passing ability is also excellent.

Playing regularly this season has been an enormous help for Rice. Since he first broke into the team there has been a buzz of excitement. As he gets more used to playing, he will learn and improve and play games to get better.

He doesn't need to make a decision on whether to play for Ireland or England to progress. He might have needed Ireland earlier in his career but now he is simply getting better in the West Ham first team. He is playing in the best league in the world and he has been phenomenal.

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