As Liverpool prepare to face historic rivals Manchester United in an attempt to keep their top four hopes alive, they’ve already achieved one big win off the pitch this week. Virgil Van Dijk has ruled himself out of Euro 2020 as he continues his rehabilitation from the knee ligament damage he suffered in October, and in doing so he has given Liverpool a reason to believe they can compete once again next season.
"I feel physically it is the right decision that I've decided not to go to the Euros and to go into my last phase of rehab in the off-season," the Netherlands captain told LiverpoolFC.com. "It's tough, but I'm at peace with it."
In this pandemic-hit season, everything has been rushed in what has turned out to be a disastrous title defence for the Reds. The games came thick and fast and their squad buckled both physically and mentally under the weight of their first-ever Premier League crown. Van Dijk’s injury came just five games into the campaign in a 2-2 draw at Everton with the club having taken 10 points from those initial games yet. Yet the loss of their talismanic defender was the clear turning point in Liverpool’s season.
They’ve never recovered, and while the injury to Joe Gomez was also damaging, the Dutchman’s influence in the backline has been sorely missed. Fabinho, Ozan Kabak, Nathaniel Phillips and the as-yet-unseen Ben Davies have all tried to fill the void, but the fact that there is no senior figure in the defence has meant that Jurgen Klopp’s side were never going to successfully defend their crown.
Van Dijk’s decision to listen to his body rather than rushing himself to play for his country at a major tournament for which they have a decent shot at glory - the Dutch are 11/1 to win Euro 2020 with Betfred - should see him back fully fit for the start of the new campaign. His return, plus the return of fans to Anfield next term, should see the team’s performance levels dramatically increase, no matter what European competition they are playing in.
Of course, they would love to sneak into the top four, and it would be an impressive achievement if they can manage to do that given the issues they have faced this season, but closing the gap and potentially even overhauling newly-crowned champions Manchester City should be their primary focus next term. Pep Guardiola’s side are likely to finish around 20 points ahead of Liverpool this season, but Klopp’s side have been far from the swashbuckling side we saw crowned champions of England and Europe in previous years. A fully-fit Van Dijk alone won’t be able to close that gap, but he should have a major impact on his side’s performances after getting a full-pre-season under his belt.
His decision to stay away from Euro 2020 is a sensible one, looking at examples from the past. David Beckham faced immense media pressure to recover from his infamous metatarsal injury in time for the World Cup in 2002. He had his moment, hitting a penalty against old foes Argentina, but in general didn’t perform at the level England needed him to in order to win the tournament.
The real impact for Beckham came the following season for Manchester United. He missed seven Premier League matches and was dropped for United’s key Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side went out, even if Beckham did score twice from the bench. At the end of that season he was out the door and sold to Real Madrid.
Luckily for Liverpool fans, they won’t have to watch a half-fit Van Dijk attempt to win Euro 2020 with the Netherlands. It is a big loss for his national team but this one decision could help to put Liverpool in the running for the Premier League title once again in 2021-22, regardless of what their future holds in Europe.