Ultimate test of Van Dijk-less Liverpool arrives at Man City

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Can you think of a more high-profile, damaging injury to a Liverpool player than Virgil van Dijk’s at Everton?

I’m not sure there has ever been one that has had the potential to define an entire season like Van Dijk’s, such is his colossal stature at the club.

Having had him available throughout almost all of his nearly-three-year stay at Anfield, we now have the horrible prospect of not seeing him in a Liverpool shirt again for almost a year.

Van Dijk has been the Premier League’s most influential player ever since he traded Southampton for Liverpool in January 2018, and barring Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, there possibly hasn’t been a player more integral to his side’s chances in the world.

The pessimism surrounding his long injury layoff is, therefore, wholly understandable, as has been some of the natural writing off of the Reds’ dominance without him, albeit only to a certain degree.

In the weeks since Van Dijk limped off at Goodison Park, Liverpool’s results have actually been faultless. They have won all five of their matches without him, including the destruction of a talented Atalanta side on Tuesday night.

In that time, three clean-sheets have been recorded, only two goals have been conceded and Joe Gomez has shown a maturity that was much-needed, as well as an improvement in form.

Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams came in and did superb jobs against West Ham and Atalanta, respectively, while Fabinho was imperious before injury saw him ruled out until after the international break.

While it is easy to smugly turn around and mock those who wrote Liverpool off without Van Dijk, the real acid test comes this weekend, as Jurgen Klopp’s men head to Manchester City.

This is the biggest game of the season so far, as the two title favourites go head-to-head, looking to land a damaging psychological blow on the other.

Victory for Liverpool would put them eight points ahead of City, having played one match extra, immediately giving them a significant lead over their rivals. Then again, if the Reds lose, City can go ahead if they win their game in hand.

The last two seasons have proved that once you are behind, it is extremely difficult to play catch-up, so the magnitude of the weekend meeting is clear.

It’s fair to say neither the reigning champions or runners-up have started 2020/21 in glittering form, with perhaps one or two vintage performances to pick out between them.

Liverpool were magnificent against Arsenal and Atalanta, but other than that, gritty wins have been the overriding order of the day, not to mention one heavy defeat apiece.

Sunday’s game is so tough to predict, such has been the unpredictable nature of both sides this season, but Van Dijk’s absence could easily end up being the key talking point once the dust settles.

He has been the rock that has held this Liverpool team together for so long, but now he is nowhere to be seen.

It’s one thing Liverpool digging deep at the back against the likes of Ajax, Sheffield United, Midtjylland and West Ham, but this is another calibre of opposition.

While City may not yet be firing on all cylinders – they have only scored nine goals in their opening six league matches – this is still a side who have Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus to call upon, while Sergio Aguero has not been completely ruled out yet.

Guardiola’s team keep possession for long periods, have full-backs marauding down the flanks and individuals capable of hurting you with one piece of genius, making them one of Europe’s toughest propositions.

For Liverpool, that means maximum levels of concentration required, perfect organisation at the back and each player doing his job, making sure that the Van Dijk-shaped void doesn’t look enormous all over the Etihad pitch.

The hope is that Joel Matip will be fit to return to the defence alongside Gomez, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are now bordering on seasoned veterans in this fixture. They know what is required to get over the line.

Thiago will also presumably be back in Liverpool’s midfield, alongside Jordan Henderson and Gini Wjnaldum, and the attack should complete what looks like an excellent starting lineup on paper.

But that lack of Van Dijk leaves you with a nagging feeling that this could be the afternoon when his greatness is really highlighted, with Liverpool finding themselves exposed in the way so many have tipped them to be.

So far, this group of players have done an admirable job of quieting the naysayers, but only at about 6.30pm on Sunday will we truly know how well-equipped the Reds really are to deal without such a world-class individual.

A heavy defeat would be worrying, to say the least, but then again, heading back down the M62 with one point, or preferably a priceless three, would suggest Liverpool are still the team to beat.

They have battled their way through numerous injuries, flat performances and inexcusable VAR decisions so far this season – a positive scoreline this weekend would feel like another almighty obstacle hurled.

Most importantly, it will further prove Liverpool aren’t the one-man team some have been keen to paint them as.

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