Virgil van Dijk’s importance to Liverpool emphasised on night of defensive uncertainty against AC Milan

Jurgen Klopp freshened things up rather than making wholesale changes for Liverpool’s maiden Champions League game of the season against an AC Milan side making their first appearance in the competition in seven long years.

Virgil van Dijk was given a breather after featuring in every minute of the Premier League campaign so far, while Thiago Alcantara, fresh from his best performance in a Liverpool shirt against Leeds last weekend and Sadio Mane also dropped down to the bench. Harvey Elliott underwent surgery on Tuesday as he begins his rehabilitation after suffering a dislocated ankle.

In came Joe Gomez, like Van Dijk working his way back from a long-term knee injury, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi. With the exception of Henderson for the gifted but inexperienced Elliott in midfield, the three other changes weakened Liverpool considerably, although that wasn’t immediately apparent as the home side flew out of the blocks at Anfield, firing off 11 shots on Milan’s goal in the opening quarter of an hour.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deflected cross flew in off the unfortunate Fikayo Tomori, to give Liverpool a deserved lead inside the opening 10 minutes, but try as they might, the second was not forthcoming. Mo Salah, the scorer of 17 consecutive penalties, fluffed his lines from the spot, Gianluigi Donnarumma’s impressive replacement Mike Maignan denying him with a strong hand.

If anything, it was too straightforward for Liverpool, the gulf between them and a youthful Milan side – Zlatan Ibrahimovic was injured, Olivier Giroud on the bench – was enormous. But then just before half-time, Milan equalised out of the blue, dissecting Liverpool’s backline with the precision of a world-renowned surgeon – Alexis Saelemaekers to Rafael Leao to Ante Rebic. Alisson had no chance with the Croatian’s crisply taken finish.

And then less than two minutes later, Milan scored with their second attack of the evening, one-time Manchester City prospect Brahim Diaz bundling in from a yard out after some chaotic defending inside the Liverpool penalty area. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Liverpool’s class showed in the end with Salah redeeming himself and then Jordan Henderson sending the sweetest of half volleys careering into the side netting for the winner, much to the joy of fans starved of occasions like these for too long.

But it was a night that offered a sobering reminder of how integral Van Dijk is to this team. Joel Matip and Joe Gomez are first-rate defenders in their own right and both have alternated for the prized role of playing alongside the big man over the past few years, no doubt spurring each other on at Melwood. Competition tends to get the best out of top players and Liverpool had precious little of it in defence last season.

However, understandably given Van Dijk’s status as one of the world’s very best defenders, neither looks quite the same without him stood next to them. Unfamiliarity was natural given the pair have only played together once in just over two years. When Van Dijk is fit, he is the first name on the teamsheet. And when he was unavailable last season, so too for a significant period of time, were Gomez and Matip.

Leaving Van Dijk out was a gamble from Klopp, although he might argue that it would have been equally risky to play the Dutchman, who has not missed a minute of action in the Premier League and completed two of the Netherlands’ three games during the recent break. His importance to both teams has ensured he has played more minutes than someone returning from a 10-month injury lay-off ordinarily would. Klopp acknowledged that watching Van Dijk clutch his ankle after the Dutch had walloped Turkey last week was a “scary moment”.

Klopp will take further opportunities to rest Van Dijk to try and avoid a recurrence of the knee injury that destroyed his season and Euro 2020 chances. But as Wednesday night showed, he will have to pick and choose those games extremely carefully.

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