Virgil van Dijk has been spared Champions League duty so far this season as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has taken care not to overload his star defender after a serious knee injury.
It looks like it’s time, however, for the Dutchman to make his return to European competition.
Van Dijk is set to face Atletico Madrid in the Spanish capital on Tuesday, nearly a year to the day he was given the diagnosis by a specialist that he would require an operation on an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee which would rule him out of the rest of last season and the European Championship.
After a full preseason, Van Dijk has played every minute of Liverpool’s eight English Premier League matches, though was rested for the team’s wins over AC Milan and Porto in the Champions League.
Van Dijk said he feels his return “is going in the right way” but that “there is always room for improvement.”
“I know there are a lot of eyes pointing in my direction and wondering, ‘Is he going to be back in the same way,’” Van Dijk said on Monday. “They were already before, but will be now even more. But it’s something I’m not thinking about. The only thing I can do is try my best each and every game.
“Everybody knows how difficult it is to come back from a knee injury. I don’t think there are a lot of examples of players who had an ACL and complex knee injury that gets back to his best after a year.”
With “the best center half in the world” — according to Klopp — back in the team, Liverpool hasn’t lost a game in the Premier League.
Liverpool’s unbeaten start to the season in all competitions will be tested at Atletico, in a stadium — the Wanda Metropolitano — where the English club won the Champions League final in 2019 for its sixth European Cup title.
Atletico has lost only two of its last 59 matches there in all competitions and beat Liverpool at home in the first leg of their last-16 match of the Champions League two seasons ago, before advancing after a return match at Anfield in March 2020 played against the backdrop of the growing coronavirus outbreak which saw all soccer in England suspended the following day.
During those matches, Klopp accused Atletico of not playing “proper football.” A year and a half later, the German coach said he meant no offense but didn’t fully backtrack.
“I said this after the second game, and I was angry and disappointed about a lot of things; life, a little bit, as things were going wrong at that moment and we had to concentrate on football in a really strange circumstance,” Klopp said.
“Then of course we played against a team full of first-class players who defended with all they had and that was probably the reason I said the things I said.”
So, what does he think of the Spanish champion’s abrasive style?
“I couldn’t have more respect for what they do. Do I like it? Not too much, only because I prefer a different kind of football,” Klopp said. “Other coaches prefer other styles so no one has to like it, it just has to be successful and that is what Atletico is.”
Liverpool is two points clear of second-placed Atletico in a tough group that sees Porto third on one point and Milan without a point.
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