Virgil van Dijk praised Justin Bijlow for his injury-time save against Latvia as the Netherlands scraped a 1-0 win in World Cup qualifying.

Davy Klaassen's volley after 19 minutes proved enough for Louis van Gaal's men to take all three points in Riga on Friday.

The Oranje were largely uninspiring, though, with 78 per cent of the possession yielding just four shots on target against a side who have won only three World Cup qualifiers since 2013. In their previous six qualifiers, they had averaged 11 attempts on target per game.

Latvia twice came close to an equaliser, the first just a minute after the goal when Van Dijk lost possession near halfway and Klaassen was forced into two blocks in the penalty area.

Then, in second-half stoppage time, Feyenoord goalkeeper Bijlow made a one-handed save to deny Igors Tarasovs after the visitors failed to clear a corner.

"It's a game everyone expects you to win," Van Dijk told NOS. "That's only normal, I think. Luckily, we did that.

"We created a lot of chances, and they had a few dangerous moments after our mistakes. But yes, it's three points. That's very important in terms of World Cup qualification. It's what we came for.

 

"We analysed Latvia well, and they're a team who don't give up. They keep running. It's not that they put you under a lot of pressure, but they play very opportunistically when they have the ball. We knew it wouldn't be over with a 1-0 lead.

"I think we had chances, but the second goal didn't come in the end. Then you have to do everything you can to keep the clean sheet and take the three points. We were successful in that, partly thanks to a good save by Justin at the end."

The victory allowed the Netherlands to move two points clear at the top of Group G after Norway drew 1-1 away to Turkey.

With their next match at home to Gibraltar, who have lost all seven of their games, Van Gaal's side could put themselves in a strong position to qualify for Qatar 2022.

"[The Norway draw] was a very favourable result for us, but we have to do things ourselves. It's in our own hands," said Van Dijk.

"On Monday, we have to take another three points against Gibraltar, hopefully with a great atmosphere in the stadium."

Ibrahima Konate wants to emulate the success of Virgil van Dijk, who he ranks as the best defender in the world.

Konate signed from RB Leipzig for a reported £36million (€42.5m) during the last transfer window and idolises Van Dijk, who played a key role as Liverpool captured their first top-flight title in 30 years during the 2019-20 season.

In that term, only Burnley's James Tarkowski (191) won more aerial duels than Van Dijk (191) and Jurgen Klopp's side struggled without the injured centre-back the next campaign as they failed to muster a worthy title defence.

The former Leipzig man boasts a similarly impressive aerial record. Out of the 742 defenders to play at least 20 games in Europe's top-five leagues since the start of the 2019-20 season, only Bruno Alves (81 per cent) posted a better aerial duel success rate than Konate (78).

However, after making his full debut against Crystal Palace last Saturday, Konate appreciates he has a long way to go to reach the levels of his defensive team-mate.

"I cannot compare with Virgil [van Dijk] because he showed to the world that he's the best defender in the world," Konate responded to Sky Sports when asked about the comparisons.

"Me? No. But I hope, with time, I will show this."

Frequently without Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip the previous season, Liverpool struggled and the arrival of Konate has now bolstered an already impressive backline.

And Klopp pinpointed his defence as a driving factor for if his side are to be successful once again.

"Ali[sson] in moments, could just make brilliant saves, it's not as though nobody had a shot on target against us," Klopp said on Friday.

"But as a unit, we defended so far pretty well. We said it before the season, nobody wanted to hear it, but we had three new players without buying them in Joel [Matip], Joe [Gomez] and Virgil [van Dijk]. We brought in Ibrahima [Konate].

"This year, we had time in pre-season to work on it, and you see that now. That doesn't mean in matchday 38 we'll still have only one goal conceded, but it means we are more stable at the moment.

"That's what we need to be successful. To be successful, you have to be consistent; if you are consistent, you have to defend well, because you cannot fly every day and score a lot of goals. You have to defend, you have to grind out results from time to time."

The Premier League table already looks to be taking shape, with a thrilling title race potentially in store.

And fantasy leagues are no different, with the best players quickly racking up early-season points to pull clear.

Want to avoid being left behind? Why not take a look at our Opta-powered picks for matchday five...

 

ALISSON (Liverpool v Crystal Palace)

Liverpool have started the season in fine form and Alisson has been central to their defensive solidarity, which has seen them keep three clean sheets in four games.

Since the start of last season, only Hugo Lloris (7.7) has prevented more goals than the Brazil goalkeeper (6.2) according to expected goals on target data, while only two can boast a better save percentage than his 74.2.

Crystal Palace may have cruised past Tottenham last time out but beating Alisson will provide a different challenge and the Liverpool man could be a guarantee for much-needed clean sheet points.

JAMES TARKOWSKI (Burnley v Arsenal)

Burnley are winless this term, but James Tarkowski remains a wonderful bargain option for your shaky backline.

While the Clarets may concede against Arsenal, Tarkowski offers returns at the other end of the pitch and boasts the highest xG (4.3) among Premier League defenders since the start of last term.

Only the more expensive Andrew Robertson, Joao Cancelo and Trent-Alexander Arnold have had more touches in the opposition box in that time period, too, meaning the centre-back could prove an alternate option on matchday five.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK (Liverpool v Crystal Palace)

From one end of the budget to the other, Virgil van Dijk may set you back but he has been the Premier League's most dangerous defender so far.

The centre-back has produced nine shots, with only Cancelo (13) and Alexander-Arnold (11) managing more opposition-box touches among defenders than Van Dijk's 11.

Given Liverpool look likely a good bet for a clean sheet as well – conceding only five goals in eight straight wins against Palace – Van Dijk could provide a perfect double threat despite the off-putting outlay for the Netherlands captain.

ABDOULAYE DOUCOURE (Aston Villa v  Everton)

Abdoulaye Doucoure may not be your typical fantasy midfielder in the ilk of Mohamed Salah, Bruno Fernandes or Paul Pogba.

However, the Everton midfielder is in fine form and provides a wonderful budget option, having been involved in four goals in his past four games in the competition for the Toffees.

Aston Villa have managed just two shutouts in their past 16, too, so Doucoure's box-to-box prowess could cause carnage once more at Villa Park.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG (Burnley v  Arsenal)

Some fantasy players may have given up hope with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he repaid the faith of those loyal to him with a goal against Norwich City last Saturday.

The Gabon forward, who many discounted after a poor last campaign, will be central to Mikel Arteta's revival and he has netted eight times in seven top-flight matches against Burnley.

Given Burnley have not kept a clean sheet in their past seven and Arsenal attempted 30 shots last time out, Aubameyang could provide more returns at Turf Moor.

SADIO MANE (Liverpool  v Crystal Palace)

Salah appears the obvious option as always for the visit of Crystal Palace; however, Sadio Mane offers an alternate differential at Anfield.

Liverpool have fired in 100 shots already this term – just the second side to register a century in their opening four Premier League games since 2003-04 – and Mane has accounted for 22 of those.

The Senegal star has also scored in each of his past eight against Palace, making him one of the best picks for matchday five.

DANNY INGS (Aston Villa v Everton)

Danny Ings has been a fantasy favourite from the start of the season but has not delivered as of yet with Aston Villa.

That could change against Everton, however, as the Toffees are his favourite opponent having scored five top-flight goals against them.

The omens are in Ings' favour, too, given he has managed to score against Everton with all three of his previous Premier League clubs – could he make it a fourth with Villa?

Jurgen Klopp confirmed Harvey Elliott suffered a horrific ankle injury in Liverpool's win over Leeds United, as Virgil van Dijk promised the youngster all of the club's support.

Elliott, who has made a bright start to the season for the Reds, suffered the injury in a challenge with Leeds defender Pascal Struijk midway through the second half at Elland Road on Sunday.

Liverpool were leading 2-0 at the time thanks to goals from Mohamed Salah and Fabinho, with Elliott receiving lengthy treatment on the pitch before being transferred to hospital.

Struijk, who got the ball with his sliding challenge, was given a straight red card by referee Craig Pawson, with Liverpool going on to cap off a fine performance with Sadio Mane adding a third late on.

Speaking to BBC Sport, Klopp said: "Harvey Elliott is in hospital, a bad ankle injury for sure. It looked like it was dislocated, the medical department put it back.

"Massive pain, shock for him, for us and we don't know more. We have to wait."

Klopp went onto the pitch and also talked animatedly to the fourth official while Elliott was receiving treatment, though he insisted he was unconcerned with whether Struijk would see red.

"I couldn't care less [if it was a red], it is not my business," he continued. "It is a serious injury, definitely for an 18-year-old boy. The red card is not important. Two or three weeks we can play on, Harvey will not.

"We played a really good game until Harvey had to go, the whole team was shocked and we lost rhythm. That is normal, human.

"We played as good as we can against Leeds. You have to be ready for brutal intensity. The crowd was there and an exciting football game with us as the deserved winner.

"I spoke to the boys afterwards, we have to speak a little bit about the football but Harvey overshadows it. I like intense football so I probably liked the game."

Klopp was also emotional in his interview with Sky Sports.

"Do I want such a young boy to have this experience in his career? No. We will play football without him, but we will wait for him as well because he is a top player," he said.

"I saw the situation. I could see his foot was not in the right place. That is why we were all shocked."

Last season, Liverpool's Van Dijk suffered a similarly serious injury when he sustained anterior cruciate ligament damage due to a challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

The injury kept Van Dijk out for the rest of the campaign as Liverpool relinquished the Premier League title they won for the first time in 2019-20.

"First and foremost all of our thoughts and prayers are going to Harvey, hopefully he recovers quickly and as good as possible from it," Van Dijk told Sky Sports.

"We have no idea of the diagnosis of it but obviously it looks bad. For the moment it happened I think you saw Mo [Salah] already shouting to the side that it was really serious, then you look at the reaction of Harvey, you know that it’s really serious."

Asked if his personal experience will mean he can provide support to Elliott, Van Dijk replied: "Yes, 100 per cent.

"I've experienced all the players, staff, everyone around Liverpool, the fans had my back and were there for me in difficult times too. I'm sure we will all be there for him and the club will be there for him no matter what."

Shortly after full time, Elliott posted a message to his official Instagram account.

"Thank you for all the messages guys," the post read. "Road to recovery. YNWA."

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has declared Virgil van Dijk fit to face Leeds United on Sunday after the defender's injury scare on international duty.

The Netherlands captain picked up a slight knock in the 6-1 demolition of Turkey on Tuesday, which would have concerned Liverpool given Van Dijk's absence for most of last term.

However, the centre-back quickly calmed Klopp's concerns before returning to Liverpool, who are on the second-longest unbeaten run in England's top four tiers (13).

The Liverpool manager confirmed the £75million man's fitness.

"With Virgil [van Dijk], that was obviously a scary moment, you can imagine," Klopp told Liverpool's official website.

"I sent him a message after the game, 'Are you all right?'."

Klopp was immediately sent a message or reassurance, and he then asked whether Van Dijk was "100 per cent", and was told he was actually "200 per cent" healthy.

The Reds boss said he then sent a message that read: "Come on, send me a video of you without limping…"

"So he called me from the bus and said, 'Boss, I’m fine!'," Klopp said.

"I said, 'Why are you limping then?’. He said, 'My wife asked the same!'.

"So, yeah, that was a bit of a tricky moment but apart from that, no, all fine [for the international players]."

Klopp will have been briefly sweating on his star defender's fitness, given Liverpool missed Van Dijk's leadership and defensive attributes last term, with only one Premier League defender (Burnley's James Tarkowski: 199) bettering his 191 aerial wins during the Reds' title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

Despite the encouraging news on Van Dijk, Klopp will be without Roberto Firmino for the trip to Elland Road as the forward suffered a hamstring injury against Chelsea.

However, Harvey Elliott is back to full fitness after withdrawing from England's Under-21 squad. Prior to the international break, Elliott became the third youngest Liverpool player ever to start against Chelsea, after John McLaughlin in 1970 and Raheem Sterling in 2012.

Klopp also confirmed Naby Keita's safe return from Guinea, having managed to leave his home country after a military coup.

"Naby is fine," said Klopp. "Yesterday he was not here [at Liverpool's training ground] but he was in Liverpool again."

Louis van Gaal insisted "it will only get better" for the Netherlands after turning on the style in Tuesday's 6-1 World Cup qualifying win over Turkey in Amsterdam.

Memphis Depay scored his first international hat-trick and was joined on the scoresheet by Davy Klaassen, Guus Til and Donyell Malen in a dominant display from the Dutch.

The Netherlands opened the scoring inside 54 seconds and were three up with 38 minutes played, the fastest they have led 3-0 in a competitive match in a decade.

Turkey lost Caglar Soyuncu to a red card before half-time but profited from a mix-up at the back to add a late consolation through Cengiz Under, though it was still their heaviest defeat since losing 8-0 to England in 1984.

Oranje have won two and drawn one of their three games since van Gaal replaced Frank de Boer, scoring 11 goals in the process, yet van Gaal can see room for improvement.

"If you win 6-1, you can expect a lap of honour," he told NOS. "This is what I signed up for, for the competition. 

"I projected my vision onto the players. I did a lot of what the players wanted. I said after the Norway and Montenegro games that it was a fantastic group, and I'm saying that again now.

"They boys have lasted the whole game, which is not normal. The first goal was college football. We haven't worked on that in training, it just comes out. 

"I'm dealing with a very happy group. I have passed the first threshold and I'm very happy with it. From now on it will only get better. We were too careless in possession."

 

Depay has scored five goals for the Netherlands in their last two games and has 12 in total for 2021, equalling the record for goals in a calendar year set by Patrick Kluivert in 2000.

The Barcelona forward is now joint eighth on Oranje's all-time top-scorers list, level with Johan Cruyff and Abe Lenstra with 33 goals in 71 caps.

Depay, who made his debut under in the first of van Gaal's three spells in charge in 2013, is now looking to climb further up that legendary list.

"Cruyff and Lenstra are legends," Depay told NOS. "They have meant so much to the Dutch national team and put our football on the map.

"You can't compare anyone with that. I now have to make sure that I remain important for the team with my game and with my goals.

"I am now in the top 10 of top scorers, but I want to be in the top three one day."

The only blemish for the Netherlands came in added time when Virgil van Dijk failed to get to a short Justin Bijlow pass under pressure from Halil Dervisoglu.

Under walked the ball into an empty net and van Dijk stayed on the ground after being caught by Dervisoglu in what appeared to be an injury scare for Liverpool.

However, the centre-back – who led the way with 88 passes at the Johan Cruijff ArenA – has provided a positive update on the ankle issue.

"I'm lucky. I'm already over it," he said. "Maybe because I am so big, they think I am acting.

"But all-in-all it was a very nice evening. There is no doubt in our minds that the next two games are very important in a month's time."

The Netherlands are top of Group G with four games to go, ahead of second-placed Norway – who they still have to face at home – on goal difference.

Virgil van Dijk was flattered by Erling Haaland's belief the Netherlands captain is "the best defender" in the world.

The pair are set to face off when the Oranje travel to Norway for their 2022 World Cup qualifier on Wednesday.

An intriguing duel should challenge both players, with Haaland full of praise for Van Dijk when he addressed the media on Monday.

"I think he is the best defender. I think quite a few others in the room agree with me on that," the Borussia Dortmund forward said.

"He is fast, strong and smart, and those are three important things you must have."

Those comments were on Tuesday put to Van Dijk, who replied: "Did he say that? That's nice of him."

The Liverpool man is relishing his return to the international stage, having missed Euro 2020 due to injury.

"I'm incredibly happy that I'm here again, with the guys, working towards a very important game," Van Dijk said.

"Everyone is sharp, looking forward to playing. Everyone is focused, which is great to see."

This will also be the Netherlands' first game since the return of Louis van Gaal, who is back for a third spell in charge.

Norway are tied with the visitors on six points from three games in Group G, one shy of early leaders Turkey.

A common perception in 2020-21 was that Liverpool's struggles at home were partly down to playing in an empty Anfield, with their raucous support not there to get the Reds over the line.

How important that actually was is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to quantify, though Liverpool did endure a club-record run of six successive league defeats last term.

But Anfield was full on Saturday and rocking for their first 'big' match of the season with Chelsea on Merseyside, and once again Liverpool looked a shadow of the inventive side that won the 2019-20 Premier League season so impressively.

They were even given the boost of seeing Reece James sent off, yet Jurgen Klopp's side failed to make the most of that advantage in their 1-1 draw.

So much of the build-up centred around arguably the most anticipated duel since Anakin Skywalker v Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Romelu Lukaku – fresh from bullying Arsenal last week – went up against Virgil van Dijk.

Of course, the Dutchman missed most of last season with a knee injury and endured a pretty tough second match back last time out against Burnley.

His 41.7 per cent success in aerial duels was way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the start of 2018-19, highlighting just how "intense" – as Klopp put it – Burnley were.

While few would've expected a similarly direct approach from Chelsea, Lukaku's second Blues debut last week really increased the anticipation for his contest with Van Dijk.

Lukaku was certainly involved in a gruelling opening 45 minutes, his first proper duel with Van Dijk coming in the 18th minute as he rather easily shrugged the defender off out on the right before seeing a cross dealt with.

The Belgian was brutal with his desire to get into the danger zone last week and he showed similarly impressive movement just before the half-hour mark – but first N'Golo Kante failed to spot his run and then Kai Havertz did as well when a first-time pass would've set Lukaku through on goal.

Havertz had just given Chelsea the lead with a header Lukaku would've been proud of, otherwise he would likely have got an earful from his team-mate.

Lukaku's excellence then should've made it 2-0 10 minutes before the break, as he brilliantly rolled Joel Matip and fed Mason Mount, only for the England star to shoot wide of the bottom-left corner.

Van Dijk's anticipation when predicting Lukaku would try to let the ball run past him in the 43rd minute drew the biggest cheer of the day from Liverpool fans up to that point, and just a few moments later the game was turned on its head, rendering their personal duel almost irrelevant.

James handled on the line and, after a VAR check, was shown a red card. While the dismissal may have seemed harsh, it was ultimately inevitable with the wing-back denying a goalscoring opportunity, and Mohamed Salah converted the penalty.

The incident forced Thomas Tuchel into a significant re-think.

When Chelsea came out for the second half, their setup had changed dramatically. Having looked effective in the first half with a low defensive block, a very high front three occupying Liverpool's backline and an energetic midfield ensuring the gap wasn't too much of an issue, after the break their forwards simply couldn't continue in the same vein.

That, therefore, took away a key component of Tuchel's system. The 8.9 opposition passes allowed outside of Chelsea's own defensive third before a defensive action (PPDA) was second only to Leeds United (8.2) in this fledgling season before Saturday, indicating a high level of pressing.

Unable to maintain this with 10 men, Van Dijk and Matip were far more relaxed.

This translated to 77.1 per cent possession for the Reds in the 15 minutes that followed half-time, yet for their dominance of the ball, Liverpool's opportunities were hardly clear-cut.

Before a late onslaught in the final six minutes, only one of Liverpool's 10 second-half shots had an xG (expected goals) value over 0.1 – that was a Sadio Mane effort in the 56th minute, it's 0.105 xG value essentially equating to a scoring likelihood of just over 10 per cent. Not exactly nailed-on.

In the end, Liverpool's predictability in attack gave Chelsea the upper hand. The Reds constantly looked to the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson playing five and four key passes respectively.

Salah (three) was the only other Liverpool player to play more than one, and again he was most prominent out wide rather than inside.

Chelsea, with their packed defence, rarely looked particularly worried and were ultimately good value for the point.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Liverpool to make a "statement" against a likely title contender, but Klopp's men lacked the imagination to overpower Chelsea's resilience.

Thomas Tuchel is relishing the battle between Romelu Lukaku and Virgil van Dijk when Chelsea travel to Liverpool on Saturday.

Both sides have made perfect starts to the Premier League season with two wins from two, scoring five goals without reply.

Lukaku, who rejoined Chelsea in a club-record deal this month, marked his second debut with a goal in last weekend's win over Arsenal.

The Belgium international is set to line up against Liverpool's defensive anchor Van Dijk in what promises to be an intriguing duel at Anfield.

Blues head coach Tuchel is confident the striker will rise to the occasion when he comes up against the Dutchman, whose return from injury he feels has provided the Reds with a huge boost since Chelsea's 1-0 win when the sides met in March.

"I am looking forward to it; I think many fans of football are looking forward to that battle," he said.

"For Romelu, it is a big challenge. He had a very good start, so now we are into details, connecting better and better. 

"The stress is on tomorrow at Anfield, but we knew we were getting a big and experienced player. He loves these kinds of matches.

"Liverpool with Van Dijk is different. It is not only his isolated capacity and ability; he also makes everybody around him feel more comfortable and stronger. They have a huge upgrade from last March."

Tuchel also praised counterpart Jurgen Klopp and the former Paris Saint-Germain boss is anticipating a special atmosphere on Merseyside.

"He has my full respect; he is one of the best managers in the world," the Blues boss added.

"He has the ability to make huge footprints and impact at any club. We need to be careful when he talks too good about you!

"We're super happy that the fans are back. We have to cope with energy that Anfield can create.

"The challenge is on and we're excited to be in the middle of it."

Virgil van Dijk versus Romelu Lukaku reminds us of the irresistible force paradox: the immovable object in Liverpool's defence meeting the unstoppable might of Chelsea's centre forward.

It makes Saturday's clash at Anfield an unmissable prospect for fans of conflict between tall men from the Low Lands.

Van Dijk was sorely missed as he sat out almost all of Liverpool's title defence season last term, when a series of shattering injury blows to the Reds backline left Jurgen Klopp severely hamstrung.

The Dutch powerhouse has recovered from knee surgery and is back at the heart of manager Klopp's defence, striving for full match fitness, while Lukaku has returned to the Premier League after two years at Inter.

Their much-anticipated tussle this weekend could tell us a lot about the Premier League title prospects of Liverpool and Chelsea this term.


Is Van Dijk physically ready?

Lukaku seized on weakness in the Arsenal defence last weekend to get off the goalscoring mark in his Chelsea career, a decade on from making his debut in a short-lived first spell at Stamford Bridge.

He hit the crossbar with a header too, as the Gunners failed to contain his threat, the Belgian's intelligent movement and physical prowess proving more than Arsenal could contain. He had eight goal attempts, a single-match total that has only been beaten six times in the two years and two weeks between his move to Inter and his Premier League comeback.

It adds up to trouble for Liverpool if Van Dijk is short of his best, and if facing Burnley last week in his second Premier League game was a gauge of where he is at, then there might be questions to ask.

Van Dijk was involved in 12 aerial duels and won just five of those, or 41.7 per cent. That is way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, his first full campaign at Liverpool, Van Dijk winning 393 of 529 such battles in the air.

His passing accuracy of 80.77 per cent was also significantly below par, with Van Dijk only ever having dipped below that 11 times in the league since joining Liverpool in the January 2018 transfer window. Curiously it had happened twice previously against Burnley, perhaps pointing to a certain discomfort when facing the Clarets.


How has United misfit become a hotshot?

Lukaku scored 16 Premier League goals for Manchester United in 2017-18 from an expected goals (xG) tally of 13.43, and 12 from an xG of 10.67 in the following season. He then took his trade to Italy and netted 23 times in Serie A from an xG of 18.85 in 2019-20 before striking 24 times (xG 23.75) in Inter's Scudetto-winning 2020-21 campaign.

His shot conversion rate has climbed incrementally from 18.5 per cent in 2017-18 to 25 per cent last season, and he is a player whose confidence is soaring.

A big chance conversion rate of 39.29 per cent across all competitions in his final season at United was Lukaku's worst since the 2012-13 campaign (37.5 per cent). By improving to 46.51 per cent and then 51.02 per cent in his two years at Inter he was not tucking away those big chances – defined by Opta as situations 'where a player should reasonably be expected to score' – at an outlandish rate, but those are healthy enough numbers.

To take the example of his final season at Everton, the 2016-17 campaign, Lukaku had a big chance conversion rate of 73.08 per cent. That is his capability, which few can hope to match.

Lukaku certainly believes he has returned to England an improved player, and his 11 assists in Serie A last season reflect well in that aspect. In 2018-19 at United, he had no assists, although in the previous campaign he managed seven.


Dribble trouble for Van Dijk?

Lukaku has found his dribbling boots again too, and that has to be bad news for Premier League defences. In his three dazzling seasons at Everton, Lukaku chalked up 105, 87 and 104 attempted dribbles while on Premier League duty, but his totals fell away to 63 and then 41 while at United. Stymied either by the role he was being asked to play, or by his waning spirits, an important part of Lukaku's game went AWOL.

He attempted just 45 dribbles in his first Serie A campaign too, but that shot up to 103 in 2020-21, and the sight of an eager Lukaku with the ball at his feet is a worry for any defender, even one Van Dijk's pedigree.

Famously, Van Dijk is rarely dribbled past by opponents. Since his Liverpool debut in January 2018, he has only been beaten in such a way eight times in the Premier League, the fewest of all defenders with at least 50 games behind them over that time.


Still the full package?

"The package of Virgil van Dijk is really helpful," said Klopp after Liverpool battled to their 2-0 win over Burnley.

Unmistakably true, and the centre-back belongs to the calibre of player that can raise their game to another level when presented with a major challenge. It is why Liverpool spent £75million to bring him in from Southampton. When many thought they were paying over the odds, Liverpool were certain he would take them up a level, and duly he has.

The character and presence of the 2019 Ballon d'Or runner-up can influence those around him, even when the data suggests he is performing, act for act, below his peak levels.

There is no doubt Van Dijk will relish the challenge presented by Lukaku, despite having played on a losing team against Chelsea's new number nine before, notably when United edged Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford in March 2018, as Marcus Rashford's double made the difference.

Saturday's tussle is one between elite-tier Premier League stars, and immovable versus unstoppable is an absurdity that adds up to stalemate.

That may be how Lukaku versus Van Dijk plays out, the match won or lost elsewhere while they scrap out their own spectacular sideshow, two colossi on whom so much will depend over the next nine months.

Liverpool went top of the Premier League after a Sadio Mane landmark goal helped the Reds sink Burnley.

The Senegal forward struck for the 50th time at Anfield in the competition, becoming just the fifth Reds star to do so in the Premier League era, as Liverpool swept to a 2-0 win.

Danny Ings joined notable company as he scored a stunning goal in Aston Villa's victory over Newcastle United, while Manchester City hit five goals in a game, which is becoming almost routine for Pep Guardiola's champions.

Using Opta data, we take a look at the key statistics from across four of Saturday's standout fixtures.

Liverpool 2-0 Burnley: Mane joins Salah in Anfield 50-goal club

Mane's clincher against Burnley was his 50th Premier League goal at home for Liverpool. The only players to have achieved that feat previously have been Robbie Fowler (85 goals), Steven Gerrard (69), Michael Owen (63) and Mane's team-mate Mohamed Salah (56).

Given their strong finish last term, Jurgen Klopp's team have won each of their past seven Premier League games now. That is as many victories as they enjoyed in their previous 20 games in the competition (D5 L8) and their longest winning streak in the league since a run of 18 ending in February 2020. Their run of fourth clean sheets in the league is their longest since a run of seven between December 2019 and January 2020.

Trent Alexander-Arnold's assist for Mane was the ninth time he has teed up a goal for the former Southampton man, four more than he has for any other Liverpool player.

Virgil van Dijk made his 48th home Premier League appearance with Liverpool and has lost none of those games (W43 D5), with the team's dip last season coming in his injury-enforced absence. Only Lee Sharpe has played more home games for one club in the competition without losing any of them (59 with Manchester United).

As Liverpool celebrated, Burnley were left to lick their wounds after losing five games in a row in the Premier League for the first time, last doing so in any division in the 2008-09 Championship campaign. The Clarets have lost 11 of their 15 Premier League matches against Liverpool (W2 D2), more defeats than they have suffered against any other side in the competition (losing 10 against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City).

Manchester City 5-0 Norwich City: A first for City, but a familiar outcome

For the first time in Manchester City's 25 Premier League campaigns, their opening goal of the season was an own goal, Tim Krul the unlucky man.

But if that was irregular, the final outcome surely surprised very few as the champions put the promoted Canaries to the sword.

Since Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City ahead of the 2016-17 season, there have been 49 Premier League games won by a margin of five or more goals, and the Catalan's team have been responsible for 23 of these (47 per cent).

City have now won their past four home league games against Norwich by an aggregate score of 19-1 since a 3-2 reverse in May 2013.

Jack Grealish became the first English player to score on his home Premier League debut for City since Frank Lampard netted against Chelsea in September 2014, while there was a collector's item from Aymeric Laporte. The defender scored his ninth goal for City in all competitions, but it was his first to come at the Etihad Stadium.

Norwich have had a brutal start, with a 3-0 home loss to Liverpool followed by the torture of City away. In Premier League history, only Leicester City in 2001-02 (-9) and Wigan Athletic in 2010-11 (-10) have ever had a worse goal difference from their opening two games of a season than Norwich's current -8.

Given their awful finish to the 2019-20 season, Norwich have now lost 12 consecutive Premier League games, the outright second-longest losing streak in the competition’s history, behind only Sunderland’s run of 20 from 2003 to 2005.


Aston Villa 2-0 Newcastle United: Diamond Ings shows his class

Former Southampton frontman Ings is looking like a smart signing by Villa already, and his bicycle kick that stunned Newcastle was a special goal.

Going back to last season with Saints, it means he has been directly involved in seven goals in his past eight Premier League starts, scoring six and assisting one. Ings also became just the fourth player to score in his first two Premier League appearances for Villa, after Dalian Atkinson in 1992, Dion Dublin in 1998 and Ross Barkley in 2020.

Villa have not lost in seven top-flight games in a row against Newcastle (W3 D4), doing so for the first time since a run of seven victories between 1955 and 1958.

The Magpies are having a tough time of it again, having lost their first two games of a league campaign for the fourth time in the past six seasons, after winning or drawing at least one of their first two fixtures in each of the 16 campaigns before that.

Their slow starts in the Premier League are becoming habitual and problematic, with Newcastle having won just two of their past 19 Premier League games in August (D6 L11), beating West Ham at home in 2017 and Tottenham away in 2019.

Leeds United 2-2 Everton: Toffees extend Premier League scoreline record

This was Everton's 70th 2-2 draw in Premier League history, and they have contested at least 15 more matches with that outcome than any other side in the competition.

If that was an all too familiar outcome, there was a first occurrence of note for the Toffees, too. Dominic Calvert-Lewin's opener was his 55th goal in all competitions for Everton, but his first scored from the penalty spot for the team who are now bossed by Rafael Benitez.

Demarai Gray scored his first Premier League goal for Everton, becoming the 34th different player to score both for and against the Toffees in the competition. Only West Ham (46), Aston Villa (42) and Liverpool (39) have had more players score for and against them in the competition.

Mateusz Klich and Raphinha earned a point for Leeds. Klich has now scored two goals in his past three Premier League games for Leeds, more than he had in his previous 32 (one). Klich has now scored five Premier League goals in total, as many as all other Polish players in the competition combined.

Since the start of last season, only Patrick Bamford (17 goals, eight assists) has been directly involved in more Premier League goals for Leeds United than Raphinha (seven goals, nine assists).

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk has disclosed the tough mental hurdle he had to jump on his return from injury and warned it will take time to reach peak form as he is "not a robot".

The Netherlands international came through the full 90 minutes of Saturday's 3-0 win at Norwich City in Liverpool's opening game of the 2021-22 Premier League campaign – his first competitive outing since October 2020.

Van Dijk had started every league game for the Reds in the prior two campaigns but sustained anterior cruciate ligament damage in a challenge with Everton's Jordan Pickford that ended his season and ruled him out of Euro 2020.

He also featured three times for Liverpool in pre-season, but the centre-back – voted the PFA Player of the Year in 2018-19 – acknowledged it will take more than one full 90-minute run out to get back to his best.

"Being back is not the closing of a chapter," he said. "It is still getting there. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to be playing from the first match because I feel I need it and it will improve me. 

"From my point of view, knowing my own body, there are plenty of things to improve but I am not a robot. I cannot be back to 100 per cent immediately. 

"The first game was very emotional and very tough for many reasons. You visualise the game so many times in your head before you actually play.

"I was tired because of everything around the game. It was sort of like a hurdle. I had to get over that, I felt like then it will come again. So that is what happened in my point of view. 

"I kept training well and felt confident in my knee. It's been a tough road but I am just happy to be out there again."

Liverpool sorely missed Van Dijk's leadership and defensive attributes last season, with only one player in the league bettering his 191 aerial wins during the Reds' title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

The Dutchman attempted and completed more passes than any other defender that campaign, while Trent Alexander-Arnold was the sole defensive player to have more than his 3,624 touches.

He slotted in seamlessly against Norwich, helping his side to a clean sheet and completing the joint third-most passes of any player in the division in gameweek one, level with Jorginho (82) and behind only Caglar Soyuncu (87) and Andreas Christensen (105).

Reflecting on his first match back, Van Dijk said: "To win the first game 3-0 is something we will sign for, but if you look at the game critically, there is a lot to improve.

"It is the start of the season and we will improve. That is how we hopefully get better and we will give it a go next week.

"I am proud of myself and proud of the people who helped me, like my wife and kids, and at the club. The first step is to get match fitness and be back to my best. I need games, time and repetition. I'm just lucky we have a fantastic manager who helps me."

Jurgen Klopp conceded his Liverpool players will have to get used to playing in front of crowds again after overseeing an opening 3-0 Premier League win at Norwich City.

Mohamed Salah set a new Premier League record by scoring on a fifth successive opening weekend, having laid on goals for Diogo Jota and substitute Roberto Firmino.

But Klopp felt Liverpool were not at their best before Jota's 26th-minute opener and suggested the capacity Carrow Road crowd was a factor.

"We saw on Sunday and Monday playing against [Athletic] Bilbao and Osasuna, we were sensationally lively from the start," he told Sky Sports, referencing Liverpool's final pre-season friendlies played out in front of fans at Anfield.

"It was not the case today. Let's get used to it. I could see it in the eyes of the players. That's fine for the first game but, of course, we want to start differently.

"And, yes, everybody has to get used to an atmosphere again. Hopefully we have a great atmosphere next Saturday [against Burnley at Anfield] and let's try to use it.

"We scored goals and controlled the game apart from two or three situations.

"It was not perfect, of course, but that's not important. It's important that we get the result and can build on it and work with it. We can work with this performance very well."

Virgil van Dijk came through 90 minutes on his first competitive appearance since last October.

"Top," Klopp said of the Dutch centre-back's display. "After that long time being out, having the pre-season he had and now being back on the pitch… it feels different.

"You could see all his quality, all his class in all moments. It was hard for him to go 90 minutes, maybe he will need a mobile ice bath.

"Kostas [Tsimikas] did really well on his first Premier League start until about 80 minutes when somebody pulled the plug. It was a very professional performance."

There was a clinical edge to Liverpool's play, one exemplified by the prolific Salah.

"They are all in good shape up front, in training they all look really sharp. But Mo is just a good footballer and he loves the competitions," Klopp added.

"As soon as it starts getting competitive again, he goes to the next gear and you saw that today."

Virgil van Dijk stated Liverpool had room for improvement despite a 3-0 win at Norwich City on his long-awaited Premier League return.

Van Dijk was playing a competitive match for the first time since suffering a serious knee injury in a collision with Jordan Pickford during the Merseyside derby against Everton at Goodison Park last October.

Goals from Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino either side of half-time put Liverpool in control before Mohamed Salah established a new Premier League record by scoring for a fifth consecutive opening weekend.

The Reds were able to close out a clean sheet but a final Opta expected goals (xG) calculation of 1.6-1.4 in Norwich's favour suggested Liverpool rode their luck at times and Van Dijk certainly thought this was the case.

"Winning here 3-0 sounds comfortable but at times we made it difficult for ourselves," he told Sky Sports.

"Maybe that's fatigue, we have to do better. But we can’t be negative about tonight.

"I need games. The manger knows it, I know it. It's time to recover and hopefully I'm ready for next week and it’s going to be a very tough one again against Burnley."

Van Dijk explained how tough it was to watch on from the sidelines as an injury-ravaged Liverpool squad saw their title defence subside last time around.

"In the beginning, mentally it’s tough," he said. "You are going from one day being fully fit to the next day you can't walk, you're full of medication and you can't sleep.

"Everyone has their opinion and you read those things because you have nothing to do.

"We struggled last season with key injuries in key positions. We couldn't play our game with high pressure. When you have midfielders playing centre-back it's not easy and the guys did a fantastic job coming third."

In terms of whether Liverpool can mount a sustained title bid against the likes of champions Manchester City, Manchester United and European champions Chelsea this time around, Van Dijk was keen not to be drawn – instead focusing upon his excitement over being back in the heat of battle.

"I don't know. The only thing we can focus on is the next game," he added, having topped the Liverpool charts for touches (92), passes (85) and successful passes (79) over the course of the 90 minutes.

"I think it's exciting to see the Premier League like this. The quality that the Premier League has with the players coming in and coming back is exciting.

"I enjoy that. If I'm thinking about our team, if we stay fit, we have a good chance to be up there. We'll see what the season brings, we have to enjoy it.

"To play against world class strikers and world class teams against where you can't predict. It’s amazing."

Virgil van Dijk has signed a new long-term contract with Liverpool on the eve of their first game of the 2021-22 Premier League season.

The Netherlands captain, who made his return from a serious knee injury in pre-season following a nine-month absence, has committed his future to the Reds "well into the coming years".

Van Dijk's previous contract ran until 2023 but the big-money signing from Southampton has agreed to extend his stay on Merseyside.

He told Liverpoolfc.com: "Amazing. It is something to be very proud of, that I am very proud of, that my wife and my kids are very proud of and obviously my agency.

"All the hard work we've put in so far continues and I am looking forward to what the future brings together with Liverpool. I'm delighted, very happy and proud."

The commanding centre-back became the most expensive defender of all time when he left the Saints to join Liverpool for a fee of £75million in January 2018.

Former Celtic defender Van Dijk has been key to the Reds' success, helping Jurgen Klopp's side win the Premier League, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

He has made 130 appearances for the club, scoring 13 goals, and follows Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Alisson in signing new contracts in recent weeks.

Van Dijk and fellow defender Joe Gomez, who also suffered a serious knee injury, were sorely missed by Liverpool last season as they failed to defend their Premier League crown but were able to secure a Champions League spot.

They will travel to Norwich City for their opening game of the 2021-22 campaign on Saturday, with Klopp having suggested Van Dijk will not be rushed back into action – although the player feels ready to return after a good pre-season.

"I feel good. Obviously [they were] friendlies, you get your match fitness up, get into repetitions of doing things again and again," he said.

"I feel like I am ready for the weekend, so we'll see what the manager decides. It is going to be a totally different atmosphere and mindset for me personally as well. It is something we fight for, for the points, and hopefully we can get a positive result out of it."

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