Liverpool once again left it late to claim their 24th victory of the season after the European champions limped over the line against Monterrey on Wednesday evening to progress into the FIFA Club World Cup final.
Jurgen Klopp’s team were without a number of their senior members with seven of Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League winners out of the semi-final clash. Jordan Henderson was forced to act as cover in central defence with Virgil van Dijk absent through illness.
The UEFA Player of the Year’s absence was stark for all to see. The Reds lacked their usual calming presence at the heart of the defence with Joe Gomez, in particular, struggling without his regular defensive partner.
It was the first match – excluding the FA and Carabao Cup – that Van Dijk has missed for Liverpool since February against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
The former Southampton defender has been Liverpool’s most transformative signing this century and Gary Lineker felt Van Dijk’s absence was far too concerning for his liking.
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Van Dijk joined Liverpool from the Saints for a then world-record fee of £75 million. Since the move, the former Celtic star has appeared in two Champions League finals, won countless individual awards and has established himself as the greatest defender on the planet.
With Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip both currently injured, Liverpool will hope that Van Dijk’s return will provide the team with some much-needed stability at the back.
BBC Sport and BT presenter Gary Linker believes Van Dijk’s unavailability from the semi-final on Wednesday drew back comparisons to the leaky defence that drew scrutiny across the country before the PFA Player of the Year arrived on Merseyside.
The 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner took to Twitter to imply that Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities are far more obvious before van Dijk arrived when he isn’t in the team:
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) December 18, 2019
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To Lineker’s credit, it is a fair comparison. Van Dijk’s influence on Liverpool since his 2018 move has been unquantifiable.
From a team that was humbled 5-0 to Manchester City and 4-1 to Tottenham Hotspurs before the Dutchman’s arrival, Liverpool have emerged a different animal to the side that struggled so much defensively.
Van Dijk’s arrival has also helped the Reds develop a certain resilience in terms of always finding a way to win.
Following defeat in the 2018 Champions League final, Liverpool and Van Dijk have since secured the club’s sixth European Cup the following season. Three months later the team secured the UEFA Super Cup and the squad is also on the verge of becoming world champions for the first time in club’s illustrious 127 year-history.
Liverpool’s irreplaceable No.4 is by far their most important and Wednesday evening’s performance certainly typified the notion.