Virgil van Dijk was missed at the back in the Liverpool's game against Monterrey but the Reds managed to get a late win. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

The words Jurgen Klopp chose just before kick-off were calm and aimed to provide reassurance about the glaring omission from Liverpool’s team sheet.

‘Virgil is not available,’ said Klopp, explaining that illness had ruled the world’s best defender out of Liverpool’s opening match of the Club World Cup. ‘It is no problem. It has to be a central midfielder in there.’

Van Dijk had not trained on Monday at the Qatar University facility that Liverpool are using here but his non-appearance then was planned. Sitting out the contest with Monterrey, though, was not what Klopp had in mind, regardless of his cool demeanour.

It meant Jordan Henderson took Van Dijk’s position in the centre of defence, and with James Milner slotting in at right back, given that Trent Alexander-Arnold was due a break, there was nothing familiar about Klopp’s back line.

How it showed. This is no slight against Henderson, whose form has been outstanding, nor is it casting an aspersion on Joe Gomez, his young partner.

What this line-up provided, though, was a snapshot of the tightrope Liverpool are walking in terms of big injuries.

Christmas had long been identified as the stage when there could be problems, given the travelling demands, all the competitions and the way the squad could be stretched physically. Here, then, was the evidence that showed how quickly Liverpool could become vulnerable.

Before this fixture, Van Dijk had missed only one match of major significance in 2019 — the first leg of the last-16 Champions League tie against Bayern Munich at Anfield in February.

The Holland captain is always there and his influence on the team is as huge as his frame. You see him in the early stages of matches, pointing to where he wants everyone to be and bellowing if things aren’t right.

Mark Lawrenson, a Liverpool great who knows a thing or two about central defenders, calls him the ‘Master and Commander’ and it is an appropriate tag.

Van Dijk was back to his best in the decisive Champions League fixture with Red Bull Salzburg, going through the gears to give in-demand Norway striker Erling Braut Haaland a lesson.

If Van Dijk excels, Liverpool do too. Without him, things are not quite the same.

Klopp, then, has good reason to wrap him in cotton wool. Joel Matip has not recovered from a long-standing knee issue, while Dejan Lovren is out until the new year. Fabinho, the defensive midfielder, who can comfortably switch to the back, is also stricken with an ankle issue.

To lose Van Dijk — or Gomez, for that matter — at this point would have implications. What is it they say: you only appreciate someone’s worth when they are not there? Without putting on his boots, the £75million linchpin showed once again why, to Liverpool, he is priceless.

Daily Mail