Van Dijk doesn’t need Kane bedtime story to solve Haaland nightmare

Pep Guardiola previews Liverpool

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It would be interesting to know just how well Virgil van Dijk slept last night. Fitfully probably. The Liverpool centre-back gives off the impression that he is a solid nine-hour-a-night man, languidly unconcerned by the worries of the day. He would not ordinarily need a Harry Kane bedtime story to drift off, you would have thought.

But the Dutch defender will have turned the bedroom light off last night all too well aware that today he has a date at Anfield with the most dangerous striker in the world.

Erling Haaland is the stuff of nightmares for any defender. His presence hangs over the biggest fixture of the Premier League season so far like a giant blonde ghoul waiting to scare any unsuspecting prey.

Only Bournemouth have managed to stop him from scoring in club football so far this season – and even then he was taken off with 15 minutes to go with City 3-0 to the good in what ended a 4-0 rout.

And, having been rested for the midweek Champions League game in Copenhagen by boss Pep Guardiola, Haaland will be fully refuelled for Manchester City’s visit to Merseyside.

So if ever Liverpool needed their defensive talisman to find his true self, it is this afternoon.

The real Virgil van Dijk needs to stand up.

It has not helped that he has played with four different central defensive partners already but he has not looked the same force this season.

The pub theory that the Netherlands captain is saving himself for the World Cup – the first major tournament of his career – is bunkum. There is no lack of commitment to his club. But his uncharacteristically hesitant start has seen his influence on the team wane. When such a beacon of reassurance is on the blink the ripples spread quickly.

Van Dijk is arguably Liverpool’s most important player. His dominance at the back allowed for the overloads further up the field which made the side so potent in recent seasons – and Van Dijk’s struggles have undoubtedly contributed to Liverpool’s malaise.To see Jurgen Klopp’s men in the bottom half of the Premier League as the autumn leaves begin to fall is a shock to the system.

English football has become so accustomed to their annual title arm wrestle with City that the state of the current table needs a double-take.

For Klopp to write his side out of the race already may involve an element of kidology, but he is probably right.

It would be convenient to assume a corner was turned with the 7-1 thrashing of Rangers on Wednesday night at Ibrox, but the same was said after the 9-0 demolition of Bournemouth in August.

The difficulties aren’t at the sharp end. When Liverpool click as an attacking entity then they can still hurt a top team and make a horrible mess of a lesser side.

The problems that remain to be resolved are at the other end.

Even the defenestration of Rangers featured an example of their defensive susceptibility as Scott Arfield strode through a yawning gap between Van Dijk and his latest sidekick Ibrahima Konate to give the home side the lead.

It was a mere footnote given what followed but an illustration of what has gone before this season.

Liverpool have conceded 18 goals in 12 games in all competitions – an average of 1.5 per match. Over the course of last season, they conceded 47 in 63 matches – 0.75 per match.

In other words the defence has become twice as leaky. No side is going to sail on as before with that level of downturn.

And now, along comes the rampant Viking pillager. When the sides met in the Community Shield pre-season, Liverpool kept Haaland off the scoresheet, so it can be done.

But that was when Haaland and his new team-mates were still getting to know each other. Now they are on the same wavelength all hell has broken loose.

He is so quick, so strong and his movement is so well-timed that he has been almost unplayable at times. He has started his Premier League career like a man on a mission.

Switch off for a second against Haaland today and, in the form he is in, Liverpool’s defence know what will happen. The hope for them must be that the fear he brings will sharpen senses and concentrate minds.

For Van Dijk, containing him is an exacting assignment but one which could yet turn around his season. Big challenges are supposed to bring the best out of big players and there is none bigger than stopping Haaland.

Not so long ago Van Dijk was being spoken of as the world’s best defender. Where better to prove it than against the world’s best attacker?

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