Liverpool: Virgil van Dijk returns to Goodison Park for the first time since THAT ACL injury

It was a day when the red half of Merseyside went up in flames: the loss of an irreplaceable defensive talisman and the trigger for the derailment of Liverpool’s Premier League title defense.

Minutes after last season’s derby between Everton and Liverpool, Jordan Pickford misdirected a challenge near the back post and clattered Virgil van Dijk’s right knee, inflicting severe pain on the usual unflappable Dutchman.

It was a blow to the end of the season, not only for Van Dijk, but also for the team he is leading so well. Tonight, the centre-back returns to Goodison Park, fully fit and firing again, as he looks set to lead another Reds title attack this season.

Jordan Pickford collided with Virgil van Dijk last October, resulting in a season-ending injury

Jordan Pickford collided with Virgil van Dijk last October, resulting in a season-ending injury

The Liverpool centre-back underwent surgery in the days following a brutal ACL blow

The Liverpool centre-back underwent surgery in the days following a brutal ACL blow

The Liverpool centre-back underwent surgery in the days following a brutal ACL blow

It marks the end of a 13-month journey that began with the dramatic end to Van Dijk’s rapid progress – reaching the point where he was seven votes shy of winning the 2019 Ballon d’Or – due to a moment of thoughtlessness that went unpunished .

Pickford was never penalized for the blow. Bizarrely, VAR chose not to issue a penalty or red card to the Everton keeper’s back post after an early set-piece.

Not one to go down quickly, a haunted look from Van Dijk immediately told the story. He left the field of his own accord, but the first indications were not good.

He knew. And so did Jurgen Klopp when he ran into him on the sidelines.

In the weeks that followed, the Dutch captain underwent successful surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament injury in his right knee. And so began a long recovery process that would most likely mean Van Dijk would miss the rest of the 2020-21 campaign.

Jurgen Klopp saw from the cold look on Van Dijk's face that the injury was serious

Jurgen Klopp saw from the cold look on Van Dijk's face that the injury was serious

Jurgen Klopp saw from the cold look on Van Dijk’s face that the injury was serious

As Thiago also suffered an injury later in the game – Richarlison was penalized and sent off for this tackle – Klopp described Everton’s approach as “completely unacceptable” and accused the Toffees of “going too far”.

“Something happened a few days ago that shouldn’t have happened in a football game,” Klopp insisted in the aftermath.

“It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time, but both challenges were hard to accept. As a person I don’t want Everton players to be punished, but we all agree that if you do something wrong, you have to deal with consequences.”

Despite an appeal, Pickford and Everton escaped punishment.

As for Van Dijk, despite the gigantic setback, he quickly set to work in a long and arduous rehabilitation. He was back at the club’s Kirkby training ground in December, posting on his Instagram cycling in the gym before 2020 was out.

The Dutchman was back on his bike in the gym in December when he started his long rehabilitation

The Dutchman was back on his bike in the gym in December when he started his long rehabilitation

The Dutchman was back on his bike in the gym in December when he started his long rehabilitation

His ambitious goal here was to be fit for the Netherlands’ Euro 2020 campaign, their first major tournament since finishing third at the 2014 World Cup.

Van Dijk was back running on the training grounds in March and his first shots kicking a football again came a month later.

By this point, Liverpool’s title defense had capitulated amid crumbling squad depth and a complete lack of fit first-team defenders.

An unprecedented six home defeats in a row at the start of 2021 saw Klopp’s team fight for a place in the top four. To their credit, after a late season resurgence, they finished third above future European champions Chelsea.

But in mid-May the Dutch captain had made his decision. A mature, sensible decision was made: the euro would come too early.

The first pictures of him kicking a football again came in April - but it was too early for the European Championship

The first pictures of him kicking a football again came in April - but it was too early for the European Championship

The first pictures of him kicking a football again came in April – but it was too early for the European Championship

‘In this last phase for myself I came to a decision that I had to make: should I participate in the European Championship, yes or no?’ he said.

“With everything going on I feel it is the right decision physically that I have decided not to go to the European Championships and go into my final phase of rehabilitation during the off-season.

“So the full focus at the club will be on the pre-season and that’s a realistic goal, so I’m looking forward to that.”

It gave Van Dijk two more months of preparation for the season to get his knee and fitness back in shape. He returned at the end of July and three weeks later, on the opening day of the Premier League season against Norwich, he started, played 90 minutes and kept a clean sheet.

Van Dijk returned from injury in July in a friendly match against Hertha Berlin

Van Dijk returned from injury in July in a friendly match against Hertha Berlin

Van Dijk returned from injury in July in a friendly match against Hertha Berlin

The Dutchman's return was a huge boost to Jürgen Klopp's title hopes for this season

The Dutchman's return was a huge boost to Jürgen Klopp's title hopes for this season

The Dutchman’s return was a huge boost to Jürgen Klopp’s title hopes for this season

Virgil was back. A new contract until 2025 was a lucrative sweetener.

In the months that followed, it’s like he never left. He hasn’t missed a minute of league football since then, has netted eight times from 13 league games and has returned to his authoritative, dominant best.

Diving deeper into the stats, Van Dijk’s pass completion reads an impressive 90.7 percent – especially when you factor in his striking diagonal passes – while he has won more than 65 percent of his duels in the back.

As we enter the busy festive season, Van Dijk is on a wave. He scored for the first time this season in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Southampton, a result that narrowed the gap to two points with Chelsea at the top after the Blues dropped two on Sunday.

Van Dijk scored his first goal of the season on Saturday in the 4-0 win over Southampton

Van Dijk scored his first goal of the season on Saturday in the 4-0 win over Southampton

Van Dijk scored his first goal of the season on Saturday in the 4-0 win over Southampton

But Wednesday will feel different for the 30-year-old as he makes the journey through Stanley Park. It will be his first confrontation with Pickford after injury, as the team as a whole look to regain Merseyside’s bragging rights after losing at Anfield to their neighbors in February.

Will there be any trepidation with the Dutchman on Wednesday evening?

You would have thought not. He’s too much of a professional to let a melodrama distract him from what he’s doing.

Van Dijk wants to lead Liverpool to another Premier League title after their success in 2020

Van Dijk wants to lead Liverpool to another Premier League title after their success in 2020

Van Dijk wants to lead Liverpool to another Premier League title after their success in 2020

Last October, when asked if he expected Van Dijk to make a strong recovery, Klopp said: “100 per cent. It is clear that he is a quick healer and a pain buyer. All these things, yes they help.’

The Liverpool boss couldn’t have been more right. Van Dijk is once again one of Liverpool’s best performing players. Revenge will not be at the forefront of his mind tonight.

It’s just three points. Another step towards a new competition crown.

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