LONDON – Liverpool's long wait for a major trophy could come to an end on Saturday with a sixth European Cup, but the foundations for a return to the pinnacle of Europe were laid last January in trusting Jurgen Klopp's judgement to make Virgil van Dijk the world's most expensive defender.
The towering Dutchman arrived for £75 million ($95 million), six months after Liverpool publicly stated they had “ended any interest in the player” as Southampton threatened to report the Reds for an illegal approach.
Klopp, though, would not settle for second best and insisted the club make the deal happen.
A season-and-a-half later the talismanic centre-back has led Liverpool to two Champions League finals and become the first defender in 14 years to be crowned the PFA Player of the Year as the Reds narrowly missed out on a first Premier League title since 1990 despite posting a club record 97 points.
“Nobody thinks about it (the price) anymore. That's good because in this market at the moment he is worth it, or is too cheap,” said Klopp.
During the German's first two years at Anfield, Liverpool were capable of the spectacular, but always undermined by defensive disorganisation.
Quality comes at a price
Van Dijk has restored order thanks to his power, pace and poise, but also with his leadership that has helped foster rapid improvement in the emerging talents of Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez.
“That's what you hope for when a new player is coming in - that he makes the whole team better,” added Klopp.
“Of course he's a very good player, he makes players around him better.
“He is so important to us. Not only as a player but as a person as well, he's a brilliant boy. I could not say a bad word about him.”
Liverpool are still capable of blowing opponents away, as a 4-0 win over Barcelona to reach the Champions League final demonstrated.
But there is also now a controlled approach, exemplified by the 21 clean sheets Klopp's men kept in the Premier League to run champions Manchester City so close.
“Liverpool have grown hugely as a team recently and a lot of that is thanks to Van Dijk,” legendary Italian centre-back Franco Baresi recently told AFP.
Tottenham now stand in the way of Liverpool rounding off the vast improvement made since Van Dijk's arrival with their first trophy in seven years.
And it was a meeting with Spurs in late March that best encapsulated his abilities as the all-round defender.
With Liverpool needing to win to remain on City's coattails, the score was level at 1-1 with five minutes to go at Anfield as Moussa Sissoko led a two-on-one counter-attack.
Most mortal defenders would be attracted to the ball, but Van Dijk stood his ground, marking Son Heung-min to prevent an easy pass to the on-form South Korean and forcing Sissoko, who has not scored this season, to take a shot with his weaker left foot.
The Frenchman's strike flew well over and Liverpool made full use of their lifeline moments later when Toby Alderweireld's own goal sent Anfield wild.
“That shows why Liverpool paid more than £70m for Van Dijk,” said Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino.
“Quality costs a specific price. Cars are like that, a lot of things are like that and players as well. That's why we paid it,” Klopp said.
Should he lift the Champions League on Saturday, Liverpool's Rolls Royce centre-back will forever be remembered for what he has achieved rather than what he cost.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)