Van Dijk, Laporte adapt to new status after big-money moves
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — They are the world’s two most expensive defenders, signed at a combined cost of nearly $200 million in the January transfer window to take Liverpool and Manchester City to the next level.
Yet, while Virgil van Dijk has stamped his authority immediately at Liverpool and looks the defensive leader the team has longed for, fellow center back Aymeric Laporte is still adapting to life in English soccer and hasn’t managed to establish himself as a first-choice pick at City.
Nowhere was this better highlighted than in their Champions League quarterfinal last week.
In the first leg, Laporte was played out of position at left back and, understandably, had a tough time dealing with the pace and trickery of prolific Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah on a hostile evening at Anfield. By the 31st minute, Salah had scored and set up another goal as Liverpool raced into a 3-0 lead it wouldn’t give up.
At the other end of the field, Van Dijk turned in another commanding display at the heart of Liverpool’s defense, helping to repel City’s attacking juggernaut as it mounted a second-half charge for an away goal. Gabriel Jesus, playing his first Champions League knockout match, was marshalled out of the game by Van Dijk.
Six days later, the Dutchman will be integral to Liverpool’s chances to holding off City in the second leg.
And there’s a distinct possibility Laporte might not even start the game at Etihad Stadium.
Of course, City regards the 23-year-old Laporte, who cost 65 million euros ($80.8 million) from Athletic Bilbao, as a player for the future, not necessarily for the present. City manager Pep Guardiola has three other top-class center backs at his disposal — Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany and John Stones — and for the moment his preferred combination is Kompany and Otamendi.
It means Laporte has played in only seven of City’s 13 games since he arrived. Three of them have been losses, including the embarrassing FA Cup exit at third-tier Wigan and a surprise but ultimately inconsequential home loss to Basel in the Champions League last 16.
He didn’t play in the win over Arsenal in the English League Cup final and was dropped for Saturday’s Premier League loss to Manchester United — a potentially title-clinching match for City. His composure and ball-playing ability has already stood out, but his lack of big-occasion experience — he has yet to make a senior appearance for France — is probably the reason why Guardiola has gone with the Kompany-Otamendi axis in this crucial stage of the season.
Van Dijk, on the other hand, had plenty of experience of Premier League, Champions League, and international soccer before he joined Liverpool from Southampton for 75 million pounds ($99 million) — a record for a defender. And there was never any danger of him having to fight his way into the starting team.
He scored on his Liverpool debut — the winner against local rival Everton in front of The Kop in the FA Cup — and has already become a crowd favorite through his reading of the game and calmness in possession. He has helped the Reds keep six clean sheets in his last eight appearances, and recently captained the Netherlands against England in a friendly.
“Well, I came definitely to Liverpool to achieve everything that is possible,” Van Dijk said on Monday. “You hope to settle quickly in the group and I think it has gone pretty well. I am just enjoying every day.”
Tuesday’s game will be his third in a gruelling six-day period — he also played in the 0-0 draw at Everton on Saturday — and promises to be the toughest of them all.
With City losing 3-0, its approach has to be all-out attack, yet Van Dijk said Liverpool shouldn’t just focus on sitting on its lead.
“It is pretty clear that defending a 3-0 lead is going to be a bit of a strange situation,” he said. “We need to come here with the mindset that it is still 0-0 and we want to win the game and we know we are capable of scoring goals.
“We know also as a team we can defend well, very compact — you could see that in the second half when we played them — but the main thing is we need to keep the mindset of winning the game, rather than defending the lead.”
Van Dijk’s protracted move from Southampton has been well worth the wait. He could yet finish his first season as a Champions League winner.
Laporte will hope that is what awaits him later in his career at City.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80