Liverpool were handed a 6ft 3ins-sized boost on Wednesday, when Virgil van Dijk confirmed he would not be rushing back for the Euros to play for the Netherlands. Though he is captain of his country, Van Dijk says his injury recovery – having been out since October with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament – comes first.
“With everything that is going on, I feel physically it is the right decision that I’ve decided not to go to the Euros and to go into my last phase of rehab during the off-season,” the Dutchman said.
“So, the full focus will be on pre-season with the club and that’s a realistic goal, so I am looking forward to that. It’s tough, but I’m at peace with it.
“I think this decision has definitely been the right one, in my opinion, to give my body and my knee a little bit more extra time to get ready. It is the right decision for this time and hopefully for the future as well.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp similarly said to journalists: “We all hope, because it’s going really well, and we are all individuals and react differently in specific moments – the plan for us is that he can start the pre-season with us.”
“The Euros were just absolutely in the wrong moment, but the good news for Holland as well is when he will be fit – because we will not force it, because we cannot force it – he will be then 100 per cent fit when he’s coming back.”
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It is a gigantic relief for Liverpool, who now have vital extra weeks and months to ensure that Van Dijk can get into his best physical shape before returning to the pitch.
Torn knee ligaments are a notoriously complex injury to return from and patience is the key, but if both Van Dijk and Klopp are confident now of him playing in pre-season, he stands an excellent change of doing so bar any setbacks.
Such setbacks are unlikely unless the towering centre-back, arguably the best in the world in his position, suffers more misfortune. Liverpool certainly won’t rush him back.
The 2021-22 Premier League season starts on August 14 and if Liverpool have Van Dijk on the pitch and at 100 per cent on the opening weekend, their prospects of a brighter campaign than this one increase immeasurably.
However, the news Van Dijk stands a strong chance of being in the starting line-up for Liverpool’s first match of the next league season is not ideal for the on-loan Ozan Kabak.
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The 21-year-old has made 13 first-team appearances for Klopp’s side, although has recently been sidelined by a muscle problem, since arriving in January and has largely coped well at Anfield given the testing circumstances.
The Turkish international can be signed on a permanent basis at the cost of £18million in June, a fee more than fair given Transfermarkt value him at £22.5m, he’s still so young and has the right profile to be a long-term option for Liverpool.
Yet all the reports in recent months have indicated that after their centre-half crisis this term, which was a vital factor in their disappointing title defence, Liverpool only want one new face this summer.
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Rhys Williams will likely go out on loan while Nat Phillips’ future is unclear, though he’s under contract and so unless he wants out for more regular minutes, Liverpool will surely keep him as a trusty back-up.
In addition to the returning Van Dijk, the Reds will also welcome back Joe Gomez and Joel Matip from long-term injuries in time for pre-season.
Add into that Ibrahima Konate, who appears a dead cert to move to Merseyside from RB Leipzig at the cost of around £34million this summer.
A deal has been described as “pretty much” done with personal terms in place and Liverpool only needing to exercise a release clause in his contract and complete a medical.
With Van Dijk fully fit, that is very much one starting centre-back spot boxed off. Gomez, having endured so many major injuries in recent years, is likely to be the one most slowly eased back in.
Konate and Matip, provided he can go without injury for a sustained period, are therefore the main options to partner Van Dijk while Phillips might expect game time if Liverpool only qualify for the Europa League. Gomez will then play here and there until he’s fully fit.
The point is, Liverpool may soon go from too few centre-backs to too many, depending on how readily available they are.
Kabak, as much as many Liverpool fans would like to see him signed permanently in addition to Konate, might found himself an unfortunate victim of that.
The Turk will hope Klopp and co. change their minds and sign two central defenders, with Matip’s long-term future at the club at risk due to his injury history and uncertainty in regards to whether Gomez will ever rediscover his best level of performance.
But if Van Dijk can return and become the immovable leader of the Liverpool back-line again, Kabak may find himself back at Schalke in the 2. Bundesliga or having to move elsewhere, for as well as he has done at times under Klopp.