Liverpool, United Kingdom | AFP | Liverpool’s attacking power kick-started their challenge for a first English title in 29 years, but with the finish line in sight, the focus is on a rock-solid defence led by Virgil van Dijk as Burnley visit Anfield on Sunday.
The arrival of Van Dijk in a £75 million ($97 million) transfer from Southampton was met with scepticism in some quarters 15 months ago, but the Dutch star’s imperious form quickly quietened such concerns.
This season, in particular, the durable centre-half — Liverpool’s only outfield ever-present in the Premier League — has been particularly outstanding.
His high-level displays have been crucial for Liverpool in recent weeks as his attacking team-mates have, by their previous standards, failed to hit the heights of months gone by.
Watford were swept aside 5-0 at Anfield at the end of last month, but those goals were the only ones scored by Liverpool in a spell that has featured goalless draws with Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Everton.
The Merseyside derby saw van Dijk in formidable form, an indication of his importance to the team as the forward line of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino struggled for form.
Van Dijk, 27, is a pivotal figure for Liverpool as they prepare for the Burnley fixture.
Liverpool’s defence has struggled with injuries to key personnel, aside from van Dijk this season, with the loss of Joe Gomez, coincidentally against Burnley when his side won 3-1 at the start of December, a particular loss.
The young England international had emerged as an important figure in Klopp’s back four prior to suffering a fractured leg, although the fact he returned to running in training on Thursday suggests he could be in contention for the meeting with Tottenham at the end of the month.
– Tense title race –
“It’s a rather positive moment. Most of the players will probably be better after the international break. For example, Joe,” Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp said.
“Joe is now running with 100 percent of his weight because we have different opportunities to run. It looks good.”
Better yet, given the tense status of the title race with Manchester City — they trail the leaders by one point — Klopp could also welcome back central defender Dejan Lovren, out with a hamstring problem since an FA Cup defeat at Wolves in early January, for the visit of Burnley.
“Dejan trained yesterday (Thursday) for the first time, completely normal,” Klopp said.
“But we have to see. He was out for a while so we have to see his fitness. He’s not injured any more, he is fit but how fit we have to see.”
Additional defensive options and cover will be welcome for Klopp although, as long as he has van Dijk at the centre of his defence, his team can be confident of maintaining their current impressive record at the back.
Five consecutive clean sheets have kept Liverpool in contention in the Premier League, with West Ham’s Michail Antonio the last player to score against Reds keeper Alisson Becker 512 minutes ago.
The 27-year-old’s composure, distribution, tackling, heading and experience have all been hugely impressive at a time when other senior stars are struggling for top form.
And should Klopp have serious aspirations to go one better than last season’s Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, he will be hoping that van Dijk maintains such form when Liverpool visit Munich for the second leg of their last 16 tie