Liverpool will take to the field at Manchester City on Thursday as Premier League champions.

The Reds' 30-year wait to reign supreme in England's top flight came to an end when City were beaten by Chelsea last week.

Becoming champions with seven matches to spare underlines the dominant nature of a campaign masterminded by the brilliant Jurgen Klopp.

As such, a host of Liverpool players are expected to be in the running for the end-of-season awards.

But which of Klopp's heroes has been the most important to the cause? Here, our writers pick out who has been the star turn and state their case.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD – Dom Farrell

The majestic front three and the defensive solidity acquired through the astute big-money purchases of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are the twin pillars of this Liverpool triumph, but Trent Alexander-Arnold gives them their x-factor. Shut down Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino if you can, but then find yourself terrorised by a lavishly talented youngster who might yet redefine what the modern full-back looks like.

Lethal from both open play and dead ball situations, the 21-year-old has been the Reds' main creative force this term and it's not even particularly close. Andy Robertson is second to Alexander-Arnold's 12 assists with eight, while the right-back's 78 chances created dwarf the next best return – 49 from Salah.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Ryan Benson

Van Dijk has been the one ever-present for Liverpool this season, starting every single Premier League match. The Dutchman leads the way for clean sheets in the division with 14.

Throughout the campaign he has been the ultimate assuring presence at the back, from his exceptional reading of the game, dominant physicality and fine technical ability. While Salah, Mane and Firmino may be responsible for most of the goals, they would also be significantly worse off without Van Dijk, whose impact at Anfield continues to amaze.

JORDAN HENDERSON – Rob Lancaster

If Van Dijk is the Rolls Royce at the back and the forward trio are sports cars capable of going from 0-60mph in a hurry, Jordan Henderson is the equivalent to a five-door family hatchback. Flashy? No. Supremely reliable? Absolutely. 

Under Klopp, the Reds' win percentage is almost 13 per cent higher (68.8 per cent compared to 56) when Henderson plays. Their only league defeat so far this season, away to Watford, came without the skipper in the line-up.

The midfielder has contributed in attack, providing five assists and grabbing three goals in 2019-20, but that's not his major purpose. Henderson knows his role and plays it to perfection, serving as the manager's on-field lieutenant as he passes and presses relentlessly to help break opposition teams down. Having lifted the Champions League last season, now he has captained Liverpool to domestic glory too.

SADIO MANE – Joe Wright

It's often said the mark of champions is to win not just when playing well, but when victory seems beyond you. Sometimes – if not often – Liverpool have been up against it and in need of a saviour. More often than not, that saviour has been Sadio Mane. 

Mane has been Liverpool's most impressive attacking player all season, his all-round game now honed to a frighteningly high level that has produced 15 goals and seven assists. Those goals have been undeniably crucial, yielding 18 points in 2019-20, a tally nobody in the Premier League can better. If ever Liverpool looked likely to falter, Mane's goals kept them on course.

MOHAMED SALAH – Liam Blackburn

Salah's prolific debut season following his arrival from Roma – he scored 44 goals in all competitions in 2017-18 – raised the bar ridiculously high. Even in the previous campaign, no one scored more in the Premier League than the Egyptian's 22 and he is once again Liverpool's leading marksman in 2019-20.  

His total of 21 goals in all competitions sees him average one every 146 minutes, while no one in the Premier League has scored more than Salah's seven match-winners.

However, Salah is about more than just goals. He has created 49 chances and provided seven assists. Liverpool's struggles to break down a stubborn Everton defence when the 28-year-old remained on the bench throughout their first game after the lockdown only underlined his importance.

Virgil van Dijk is the best centre-back in world football according to Bayern Munich's Jerome Boateng.

Former Germany international Boateng has enjoyed a renaissance at Bayern this season, impressing alongside David Alaba at the heart of defence after Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac as head coach to guide the Bavarian giants to an eighth consecutive Bundesliga title.

But he feels Van Dijk, now himself a top-flight champion after Liverpool clinched Premier League glory on Thursday, stands apart among the elite.

"He is up there with his consistent performance," Boateng said during a Bayern 'Fan-Talk'.

"But I also like [Kalidou] Koulibaly from Napoli. [Sergio] Ramos from Real Madrid has been playing at a high level for a long time."

As for his own upturn, the 31-year-old Boateng is keen to give plenty of credit to Flick.

"Since Hansi Flick became coach, you feel good in training and in everything. The fun and good mood are back," he explained.

"Hansi is very special, otherwise he would not be so successful with the team.

"He gives us a lot of trust, everyone. He wants to improve everyone and he does that. He gives us an incredible amount of self-confidence."

Virgil van Dijk believes Liverpool have reached a "different level" on their way to the Premier League title this season.

Liverpool were crowned league champions for the first time since 1990 on Thursday, when Manchester City fell to defeat at Chelsea.

Van Dijk arrived at Anfield in January 2018 and is regarded as one of the best defenders in the world, having now added a league title to last year's Champions League success.

The Netherlands international feels Liverpool – who have won 28 of 31 league games this season – have reached new heights in 2019-20.

"To be absolutely honest when I joined in the winter I hoped for the best in the first six months, I hoped to settle as quickly as I can," Van Dijk told BT Sport.

"To reach the Champions League final straight away was a big boost for me personally. It was something that helped me a lot and obviously the year after we came very close with the Premier League and we were very lucky enough and blessed that we could win the Champions League.

"And this year, especially the league, we have been taking it to a different level and everyone can have their opinions and stuff, but we have been so consistent.

"We have been doing so well in different parts of our game, whether it is that we have to dig deep and do it in the last couple of minutes of the game or do it comfortably as well and it's a fantastic feeling and I'm very, very proud that I'm a Premier League winner as well."

Van Dijk's interview was crashed by his team-mates celebrating their success, with Liverpool 23 points clear at the top with seven games remaining.

Manchester City's 2-1 defeat at Chelsea on Thursday saw Liverpool crowned Premier League champions.

It ends a 30-year wait to reign supreme in England's top flight for the Anfield club and means Jurgen Klopp's stars will be rightly celebrated.

Becoming champions with seven matches to spare underlines the dominant nature of a campaign masterminded by their brilliant manager.

As such, a host of Liverpool players are expected to be in the running for the end-of-season awards.

But which of Klopp's heroes has been the most important to the cause? Here, our writers pick out who has been the star turn and state their case.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD – Dom Farrell

The majestic front three and the defensive solidity acquired through the astute big-money purchases of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are the twin pillars of this Liverpool triumph, but Trent Alexander-Arnold gives them their x-factor. Shut down Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino if you can, but then find yourself terrorised by a lavishly talented youngster who might yet redefine what the modern full-back looks like.

Lethal from both open play and dead ball situations, the 21-year-old has been the Reds' main creative force this term and it's not even particularly close. Andy Robertson is second to Alexander-Arnold's 12 assists with eight, while the right-back's 78 chances created dwarf the next best return – 49 from Salah.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Ryan Benson

Van Dijk has been the one ever-present for Liverpool this season, starting every single Premier League match. The Dutchman leads the way for clean sheets in the division with 14.

Throughout the campaign he has been the ultimate assuring presence at the back, from his exceptional reading of the game, dominant physicality and fine technical ability. While Salah, Mane and Firmino may be responsible for most of the goals, they would also be significantly worse off without Van Dijk, whose impact at Anfield continues to amaze.

JORDAN HENDERSON – Rob Lancaster

If Van Dijk is the Rolls Royce at the back and the forward trio are sports cars capable of going from 0-60mph in a hurry, Jordan Henderson is the equivalent to a five-door family hatchback. Flashy? No. Supremely reliable? Absolutely. 

Under Klopp, the Reds' win percentage is almost 13 per cent higher (68.8 per cent compared to 56) when Henderson plays. Their only league defeat so far this season, away to Watford, came without the skipper in the line-up.

The midfielder has contributed in attack, providing five assists and grabbing three goals in 2019-20, but that's not his major purpose. Henderson knows his role and plays it to perfection, serving as the manager's on-field lieutenant as he passes and presses relentlessly to help break opposition teams down. Having lifted the Champions League last season, now he has captained Liverpool to domestic glory too.

SADIO MANE – Joe Wright

It's often said the mark of champions is to win not just when playing well, but when victory seems beyond you. Sometimes – if not often – Liverpool have been up against it and in need of a saviour. More often than not, that saviour has been Sadio Mane. 

Mane has been Liverpool's most impressive attacking player all season, his all-round game now honed to a frighteningly high level that has produced 15 goals and seven assists. Those goals have been undeniably crucial, yielding 18 points in 2019-20, a tally nobody in the Premier League can better. If ever Liverpool looked likely to falter, Mane's goals kept them on course.

MOHAMED SALAH – Liam Blackburn

Salah's prolific debut season following his arrival from Roma – he scored 44 goals in all competitions in 2017-18 – raised the bar ridiculously high. Even in the previous campaign, no one scored more in the Premier League than the Egyptian's 22 and he is once again Liverpool's leading marksman in 2019-20.  

His total of 21 goals in all competitions sees him average one every 146 minutes, while no one in the Premier League has scored more than Salah's seven match-winners.

However, Salah is about more than just goals. He has created 49 chances and provided seven assists. Liverpool's struggles to break down a stubborn Everton defence when the 28-year-old remained on the bench throughout their first game after the lockdown only underlined his importance.

It may have taken a few months longer than it should have because of the coronavirus pandemic, but at long last Liverpool are Premier League champions.

Manchester City's 2-1 defeat at Chelsea on Thursday finally made it mathematically impossible for Pep Guardiola's men to catch the Reds, leaving Liverpool to celebrate a first ever Premier League title.

Having come close to ending their barren run a few times over the past three decades before falling short, Liverpool were plagued by suggestions they may not be able to handle the pressure in their quest to claim a first league championship since 1990.

But in reality this was a forgone conclusion for a long time, having dropped points just once in their first 27 league matches this term.

Following confirmation of their historic achievement, we crunched the Opta numbers and looked at the key areas of their squad this season.

Dynamic and dependable at the back

Liverpool's excellence in attack is obvious – few clubs in Europe can boast a more effective front three, but at the back they are similarly impressive.

Virgil van Dijk is the key figure, of course, and the Dutchman has led by example from the back again this term. He has started all 31 of Liverpool's matches, the only Reds player to do so, and he has helped keep a league-high 14 clean sheets.

But Alisson's importance is also easy to highlight. The Brazilian missed a chunk of the season due to injury, yet he's only two shy of Van Dijk in the clean sheet stakes.

But in the modern game there is more to defenders than just ensuring the opposition don't score – full-backs are expected to be creative, and Liverpool embody that perfectly.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has laid on 12 assists this season – a figure bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne – and created 78 chances, 29 more than the Reds' second most creative player. On top of that, Andy Robertson has eight assists to his name, the joint-fourth best in the league.

Henderson the unsung hero in midfield

Throughout his career, Jordan Henderson has polarised opinion – but the only point of view that counts here is Klopp's, and the data shows the former Sunderland star's influence.

Since Klopp joined the club, Liverpool's win frequency in the league is 13 per cent better with Henderson in the team than when he is absent.

Indeed, their solitary league defeat this term – at Watford in February – came when Henderson was not in the team.

Henderson has played 125 Premier League matches for Klopp, losing just 11. In the same period, the Reds have lost 10 times from just 50 games without him.

He may not attract the plaudits like those scoring and creating the goals, but there's little doubt his functionality helps Liverpool and aids their more technically gifted superstars.

Triple threat

Is there a better front three in world football than Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah? While difficult to absolutely prove, they are undoubtedly vital to this Liverpool team.

All three are in double figures for goal involvements, with Firmino on 15 (eight goals, seven assists), 22 for Mane (15 goals, seven assists) and Salah in front with 24 (17 goals, seven assists).

Salah has found the net every 137 minutes in the league this term, the best in the team, though Mane's 25 per cent conversion rate is significantly better than the Egyptian's 17 per cent.

All three have a habit of being decisive when it matters too. No one in the entire league has scored more winning goals than Salah (seven), though Mane and Firmino are just behind him with six.

Similarly, Mane's 15 goals have led to 18 points, a Premier League-high in 2019-20.

Liverpool have been utterly ruthless this season, their remarkable 23-point cushion after 31 matches undeniable proof of their relentlessness and brilliance.

Having achieved levels of consistency that have effectively never been seen before in the Premier League era, one has to wonder what it will take to stop Klopp's Reds.

Manchester City's 2-1 defeat at Chelsea on Thursday saw Liverpool crowned Premier League champions.

It ends a 30-year wait to reign supreme in England's top flight for the Anfield club and means Jurgen Klopp's stars will be rightly celebrated.

Becoming champions with seven matches to spare underlines the dominant nature of a campaign masterminded by their brilliant manager.

As such, a host of Liverpool players are expected to be in the running for the end-of-season awards.

But which of Klopp's heroes has been the most important to the cause? Here, our writers pick out who has been the star turn and state their case.

 

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD – Dom Farrell

The majestic front three and the defensive solidity acquired through the astute big-money purchases of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk are the twin pillars of this Liverpool triumph, but Trent Alexander-Arnold gives them their x-factor. Shut down Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino if you can, but then find yourself terrorised by a lavishly talented youngster who might yet redefine what the modern full-back looks like.

Lethal from both open play and dead ball situations, the 21-year-old has been the Reds' main creative force this term and it's not even particularly close. Andy Robertson is second to Alexander-Arnold's 12 assists with eight, while the right-back's 78 chances created dwarf the next best return – 49 from Salah.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK – Ryan Benson

Van Dijk has been the one ever-present for Liverpool this season, starting every single Premier League match. The Dutchman leads the way for clean sheets in the division with 14.

Throughout the campaign he has been the ultimate assuring presence at the back, from his exceptional reading of the game, dominant physicality and fine technical ability. While Salah, Mane and Firmino may be responsible for most of the goals, they would also be significantly worse off without Van Dijk, whose impact at Anfield continues to amaze.

JORDAN HENDERSON – Rob Lancaster

If Van Dijk is the Rolls Royce at the back and the forward trio are sports cars capable of going from 0-60mph in a hurry, Jordan Henderson is the equivalent to a five-door family hatchback. Flashy? No. Supremely reliable? Absolutely. 

Under Klopp, the Reds' win percentage is almost 13 per cent higher (68.8 per cent compared to 56) when Henderson plays. Their only league defeat so far this season, away to Watford, came without the skipper in the line-up.

The midfielder has contributed in attack, providing five assists and grabbing three goals in 2019-20, but that's not his major purpose. Henderson knows his role and plays it to perfection, serving as the manager's on-field lieutenant as he passes and presses relentlessly to help break opposition teams down. Having lifted the Champions League last season, now he has captained Liverpool to domestic glory too.

SADIO MANE – Joe Wright

It's often said the mark of champions is to win not just when playing well, but when victory seems beyond you. Sometimes – if not often – Liverpool have been up against it and in need of a saviour. More often than not, that saviour has been Sadio Mane. 

Mane has been Liverpool's most impressive attacking player all season, his all-round game now honed to a frighteningly high level that has produced 15 goals and seven assists. Those goals have been undeniably crucial, yielding 18 points in 2019-20, a tally nobody in the Premier League can better. If ever Liverpool looked likely to falter, Mane's goals kept them on course.

MOHAMED SALAH – Liam Blackburn

Salah's prolific debut season following his arrival from Roma – he scored 44 goals in all competitions in 2017-18 – raised the bar ridiculously high. Even in the previous campaign, no one scored more in the Premier League than the Egyptian's 22 and he is once again Liverpool's leading marksman in 2019-20.  

His total of 21 goals in all competitions sees him average one every 146 minutes, while no one in the Premier League has scored more than Salah's seven match-winners.

However, Salah is about more than just goals. He has created 49 chances and provided seven assists. Liverpool's struggles to break down a stubborn Everton defence when the 28-year-old remained on the bench throughout their first game after the lockdown only underlined his importance.

Virgil van Dijk said Liverpool will only improve as the star defender fired an ominous warning to rival Premier League clubs, with the Reds eyeing a period of dominance.

Not since 1990 have Liverpool been crowned English champions but the Merseyside outfit are on the cusp of a drought-ending Premier League trophy.

Liverpool are 22 points clear atop the table with nine matches remaining ahead of Sunday's Merseyside derby away to rivals Everton at Goodison Park.

Van Dijk warned Liverpool are already preparing for next season as Jurgen Klopp's men look to progress further.

"I know how long our fans have been waiting for this," Van Dijk said via the Daily Mail. "But unfortunately it's something we all have to deal with that they won't be able to be there if it happens. We've seen clubs winning cups already in other countries and everybody is getting on with it.

"For me, winning the Premier League and lifting that trophy would be a dream come true. We were very close last year and we are very close this year, much closer than we were last year. We have nine games to go and we will try to win all of them. That's our goal.

"With two wins, we will be champions. But it doesn't stop there. We want to keep going, we want to take it into next season as well because that will start pretty quickly after the last game of this season. The manager spoke to us as well and said that what we do in these last nine games will set the tone for next season as well.

"We have not won the title yet. We have not won anything yet. But the aim is to start next season in the same fashion. We can be a team that can keep progressing. We have players who can progress and make big steps in their development. Winning the league would be a big experience that could take them to the next level.

"We can achieve that first and foremost this season and then we will see what can happen next season. If we win the title this season, we will try to retain it. That's what we are aiming for but everyone knows how difficult it is to retain the title, especially in England and we are not there this season yet. We tried to retain our Champions League title and it wasn't possible. It's very difficult.

"We will try to focus on the nine games we have left but we hope to set the pace for the rest of next season with the title behind our name and defend the title as well."

Everton striker Richarlison has lit the touch paper ahead of the Merseyside derby by stating Virgil van Dijk is not among the best three defenders in the world.

Van Dijk has been outstanding since joining the Reds from Southampton in a then-world record transfer fee for a defender of £75million in January 2018.

The Netherlands captain has hardly put a foot wrong for Jurgen Klopp's side, playing a major part in their Champions League triumph last season and putting them on the brink of the Premier League title this term.

Yet, Brazil international Richarlison does not rate the former Celtic centre-back as the best in his position as they prepare to do battle at Goodison Park on Sunday.

He said in an interview with Desimpedidos:  "People talk a lot about him [Van Dijk]. Yes, he is a great defender, but I've already dribbled past him.

"He was chosen as one of the top three in the world as he had an excellent season.

"But yes, for me there are better defenders."

Asked which players he thinks are better than the 28-year-old, he replied: "Thiago Silva, Marquinhos and Sergio Ramos."

Van Dijk was second behind only Lionel Messi for the Ballon d'Or last year but did land the PFA Players' Player of the Year award.

Virgil van Dijk is set to extend his deal at Liverpool, while Lautaro Martinez could reportedly push for his move to Barcelona.

Van Dijk, 28, is widely regarded as one of the world's best defenders and he seems primed to stay put after starring at Anfield.

Meanwhile, Barca's pursuit of Martinez continues.

 

TOP STORY – VAN DIJK TO SIGN FIVE-YEAR LIVERPOOL CONTRACT

Van Dijk will sign a five-year deal worth £57million at Liverpool, according to The Sun.

The report says the Netherlands international will become the highest-paid player in the club's history.

Van Dijk finished second to Barcelona star Lionel Messi in the 2019 Ballon d'Or and is on track to help Liverpool win their first league title in 30 years.

ROUND-UP

- Talk around Martinez's future continues. Sport reports Barcelona will press Inter and the forward will also push for a move to Camp Nou.

- Inter could be looking for a replacement if Martinez decides to leave. CalcioMercato reports they are considering Fiorentina star Federico Chiesa as the Argentina international's replacement.

- Another forward Inter have been linked to is Edinson Cavani, who is coming out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain. But La Gazzetta dello Sport reports Cavani wants €12m per year, which it says it €3m more than Inter are willing to pay.

- There is also uncertainty over Arturo Vidal's future at Barcelona. The midfielder has been linked with an exit as his contract expires next year, but Mundo Deportivo reports the Chile international has no interest in discussing his future until August.

- Hector Bellerin has a deal at Arsenal until 2023, but there is some talk about his future. The Mirror reports the 25-year-old is a target for Inter this close season.

- Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma is apparently attracting some interest. According to the Daily Express, Everton want to sign the 25-year-old, who has also been linked to Tottenham.

Liverpool star Virgil van Dijk is the only centre-back to have enjoyed a better season than Leicester City's Caglar Soyuncu in the Premier League this term, according to Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

Leicester have been the surprise package of the 2019-20 campaign, with Brendan Rodgers' men sitting third in the Premier League ahead of the season's resumption.

Soyuncu has been regarded as a key component for the Foxes, with the Turkey international playing 28 of their 29 league games, forming a solid partnership with Jonny Evans.

Only Liverpool and Sheffield United have conceded fewer goals than Leicester's 28, and Soyuncu – who stepped in as a replacement for Harry Maguire after he left for Manchester United – has reportedly attracted interest from bigger clubs.

City are among those thought to be keen on the 24-year-old, with Pep Guardiola seemingly eager to bolster his defensive options, and Gundogan would like to see the former Freiburg man in Manchester.

Speaking to Turkish publication Fanatik, Gundogan – whose parents are from Turkey – said: "The first who comes to my mind regarding the Turkish player I'd want to see in Manchester City is Caglar.

"I agree with the general opinion of the football public. This season, Caglar has had the best performance in the Premier League after Van Dijk.

"I didn't know him before. We met when we played each other in matches. In addition to the Premier League games, we also played against Leicester City in a cup.

"We always saw and talked to each other. We started getting to know each other – he's a very good lad. I love him.

"His football understanding and character are also very good, and his performances for both Leicester and the national team have been great."

Virgil van Dijk has revealed there was an "instant feeling" with Liverpool that led to him joining the club, with the move allowing him to make "big progress" in his career.

The Netherlands centre-back eventually arrived at Anfield from Southampton for a reported £75million in January 2018, the Reds having initially attempted to sign the player prior to the start of that season.

Van Dijk has blossomed since the switch, helping Liverpool reach back-to-back Champions League finals while they had moved to the brink of a first title in the Premier League era prior to the domestic season being suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Having also finished second to Lionel Messi for the Ballon d'Or last year, the 28-year-old is delighted with the way things have worked out since choosing to head to Merseyside.

"It was surreal for me to have to make a decision where to go to at the time. The instant feeling was there with Liverpool and they ticked most of my boxes," Van Dijk said in an interview with Jamie Redknapp for Sky Sports.

"When I went to Celtic I didn't realise how big they were at the time, but I had a feeling before I joined Liverpool how big Liverpool really were.

"You see all their games, I'd played there two times before I joined them, and over the course of time before I signed, I met so many people, Liverpool fans, that would say, 'I hope you sign for us'.

"It was special, and when things got finalised and you start playing, my debut against Everton was something I will never forget.

"How things went in the end; starting in the winter, reaching the Champions League final, the disappointment of losing it but then winning it the year after, coming very close to winning the Premier League and obviously now we are in a very fortunate position to hopefully get it over the line when things start moving again.

"We are making big progress as a team and I have definitely made big progress myself."

Van Dijk was a key member of the Liverpool team that conquered in Europe last season, Jurgen Klopp's side securing the Champions League trophy.

The former Celtic defender described the final in Madrid, where they defeated Premier League rivals Tottenham, as "surreal" – and he hopes to experience it again during his career.

"Winning the Champions League was surreal. I slept only one hour after, then we went straight back to Liverpool after that and then we went on the parade," Van Dijk said.

"I couldn't keep my eyes open; I was so tired, but it was an unbelievable night, something I will never forget.

"It was just incredible, from start to finish, it's something we all want to experience again, whether it's in the Premier League or next season in the Champions League.

"We will try and go again. Hopefully we can experience something similar in the future."

Liverpool star Virgil van Dijk is the best ever Premier League centre-back, according to Vincent Kompany.

Van Dijk, 28, has starred since his move from Southampton to Liverpool, for a reported £75million, in January 2018.

The Netherlands international finished second to Lionel Messi for the Ballon d'Or last year, having helped Liverpool win the Champions League.

Manchester City great Kompany, now the Anderlecht player-manager, believes Van Dijk is the best centre-back in Premier League history.

"I would bring it back to Virgil van Dijk," he told SPORF.

"It's a weird one because he hasn't been on the scene for as long as these names we mentioned – John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, these guys were there for a long, long time.

"But the signs he showed in his last few years, just makes it so obvious that if he would've been at the top, top level before that he would've been already further as well.

"From what I've seen in terms of having an impact on a team and a defender is never about himself, it's about his communication with other guys and how you make your team more solid.

"The Liverpool before Van Dijk and the one after him, it's a completely different setup and I'll give him that one because of that."

Liverpool held a 25-point lead atop the Premier League table when the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Fabio Cannavaro has sympathised with Virgil van Dijk after the Liverpool star narrowly missed out on winning last year's Ballon d'Or award.

Barcelona forward Lionel Messi came out on top by just seven points in the voting to claim football's most prestigious individual honour for a sixth time.

A defender has not won the award since Cannavaro did so in 2006 in the wake of Italy's victory at the World Cup.

Cannavaro felt Van Dijk was extremely unfortunate not to triumph after the huge impact he had on Liverpool's backline on their way to Champions League glory in 2019.

He believes defenders start at a disadvantage when compared to attacking stars like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I messaged Van Dijk to congratulate him on last season but, as a defender, it is difficult to win," Cannavaro said to Sky Sports.

"You don't just need to have a great performance and to win trophies.

"You need to be lucky not to have a striker like Ronaldo and Messi in front of you. This is the key. If you have Messi or Ronaldo you start the game 1-0 up."

Liverpool had three of the top five players in last year's Ballon d'Or voting, with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah also faring well.

"Liverpool had an amazing season and they deserve to win and celebrate this league," added Cannavaro, referring to the Reds' position at the Premier League summit.

"But we are in this [coronavirus] situation and it's a shame for them.

"I respect Salah a lot. He's changed a lot at Liverpool. For the last three years, he's been like a machine. 

"He's the player every coach would like to train because he can defend and attack and he leaves everything on the field, he never gives up."

Cannavaro, who is in charge of Guangzhou Evergrande, hopes to manage in the Premier League one day.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola are among those he is impressed by.

"I watch every game in the Premier League and I like the ambiance and culture of football in England," he said.

"I am in China to try to improve my system and idea within football. I am at one of the best Asian clubs and of course, in the future, I'd like to try one experience in Europe. 

"I like the Klopp mentality but at the same time, I like the Pep culture about football because always we need intensity with and without the ball. 

"But you need to control the game and try to win. I have my system and I hope one day you will see."

Virgil van Dijk is "a dominant force" and Liverpool team-mate Joe Gomez relishes being able to play alongside him.

Gomez and Van Dijk have formed a solid partnership at the heart of the Premier League's best defence, with the former having overcome significant injury problems to establish himself in Jurgen Klopp's starting XI.

Van Dijk arrived at Anfield in January 2018 as the world's most expensive defender, a record that has since been surpassed by Harry Maguire's switch to Manchester United, and quickly struck up a close relationship with the England international.

"I've said it before, but the stature of Virgil before he came to the club was massive," Gomez told Sky Sports.

"I was a young centre-back, hadn't really gotten as many games [at Liverpool] as I would have liked but as soon as he came in, he reached out with open arms and we formed a bond straight away.

"The fact that he is a down-to-earth person off the pitch, we get on really well and we have a great relationship.

"We talk and in times like this, we FaceTime and speak about general things so that helps on the pitch when you have an understanding. He's your mate at the end of the day.

"Sometimes he gives me an earful, but it's a massive help and a confidence booster just having someone like him beside you. When there's a one-on-one battle, you know he's going to dominate, he doesn't really lose headers at all.

"Just having him alongside you and his presence, it's not just me, it's the whole team and the stadium. When Virgil goes down, I think there is a bit of a gasp and a worry but he's a real dominant force and a pleasure to play alongside."

Gomez joined Liverpool from Charlton Athletic as an 18-year-old in 2015 and admits it took time for him to understand the size of the club and the expectations that would be upon him.

"Football was all I knew and looking back, it was daunting," said Gomez. "It's a massive club and to be honest, I don't think I realised the stature of the club and what I was getting in to in terms of the expectation.

"But I think you have to take it head on and you have to accept that when you don't perform, you have to take it on the chin and there's going to be backlash – not in the negative sense, but just through expectation. Around the club, it has such a strong history and you have to uphold that.

"I think as soon as I went into pre-season, I realised the size of the club. I was used to staying in the UK and going for a training camp somewhere, but in my first Liverpool pre-season, we went to Thailand. We turned up to the hotel and it was ridiculous, security everywhere and hundreds of people. Straight away from there, I realised.

"We then flew to Australia and played against Brisbane Roar and the stadium was packed. That was the first time I heard 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and I thought, 'Yeah, this is a different scale.'"

Passing the ball can sometimes look like the easiest thing in the world to do. At least, it does when these guys do it.

Our latest dive into the data of 2019-20 sees us look at the best playmakers in Europe's top-five leagues before the season was called to a halt.

We've deliberately broadened our approach to what constitutes a playmaker here – Gerard Pique doesn't often appear as a number 10, unless Barca are in real trouble – as the idea is to offer a wider consideration of those players who generally use the ball better than most when in possession.

To that end, we've looked at 12 different metrics to come up with the top performers of the campaign, again from among those to make at least 10 league appearances.

While some stars are not exactly strange to see in the list below, there is a handful of more surprising names, too...

 

THE TOP PLAYMAKERS IN EUROPE'S TOP-FIVE LEAGUES 2019-20:

BUNDESLIGA:

Most successful passes: Sven Bender (1,766)
Highest passing accuracy: Axel Witsel (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Joshua Kimmich (873)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Axel Witsel (92.2)
Most passes ending in final third: Jadon Sancho (576)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Axel Witsel (88.4 per cent)
Most chances created: Christopher Nkunku (65)
Most big chances created: Thomas Muller (24)
Most assists: Thomas Muller (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Dennis Geiger (50 per cent)

LALIGA:

Most successful passes: Gerard Pique (1,688)
Highest passing accuracy: Toni Kroos (93.6 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Sergio Busquets (957)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Toni Kroos (92.4)
Most passes ending in final third: Lionel Messi (698)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Toni Kroos (90.3)
Most chances created: Jose Campana (58)
Most big chances created: Lionel Messi (22)
Most assists: Lionel Messi (12)
Most assists from open play: Portu and Lionel Messi (8)
Most crosses/corners successful: Jesus Navas (43)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

LIGUE 1:

Most successful passes: Marco Verratti (1,581)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Marco Verratti (956)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: Thiago Silva (92.8 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Angel Di Maria (543)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Colin Dagba (86 per cent)
Most chances created: Dimitri Payet (87)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Angel Di Maria (14)
Most assists from open play: Angel Di Maria (10)
Most crosses/corners successful: Dimitri Payet (63)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Marco Verratti (54.6 per cent)

 

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: John Stones (94 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Highest passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (23)
Most assists: Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Kevin De Bruyne (14)
Most crosses/corners successful: Kevin De Bruyne (69)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Christian Atsu (47.1 per cent)

 

SERIE A:

Most successful passes: Fabian Ruiz (1,488)
Highest passing accuracy: Marlon Santos (94.1 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Fabian Ruiz (932)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: Eljif Elmas (91.5 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Luis Alberto (723)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Walace (89.7 per cent)
Most chances created: Luis Alberto (75)
Most big chances created: Luis Alberto (16)
Most assists: Luis Alberto (12)
Most assists from open play: Luis Alberto and Alejandro Gomez (9)
Most crosses/corners successful: Erick Pulgar (46)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Armando Izzo (54.6 per cent)

 

AND THE TOP 12:

Most successful passes: Virgil van Dijk (2,209)
Highest passing accuracy: Thiago Silva (95.5 per cent)
Most successful passes, opposition half: Rodri (1,069)
Passing accuracy, opposition half: John Stones (93.9 per cent)
Most passes ending in final third: Kevin De Bruyne (740)
Highest passing accuracy ending in final third: Ibrahim Amadou (93.3 per cent)
Most chances created: Kevin De Bruyne (96)
Most big chances created: Angel Di Maria (31)
Most assists: Thomas Muller and Kevin De Bruyne (16)
Most assists from open play: Thomas Muller (15)
Most crosses/corners successful: Filip Kostic (71)
Highest crosses/corners accuracy (min. 10): Benat (55 per cent)

 

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