Darwin Nunez will "score a lot of goals and show his talent" despite a tough start to his Liverpool career, says ex-Reds midfielder Mohamed Sissoko.

Striker signing Nunez, who scored on his Premier League debut against Fulham, has failed to add to his tally following a three-match ban for a red card against Crystal Palace in August.

But Sissoko – a Liverpool player for three years under Rafael Benitez – is confident the Uruguay forward simply needs time to adapt.

"It's not easy to play in the Premier League. It's a big difference between the Portuguese league and the Premier League," Sissoko told Stats Perform.

"If Liverpool spent a lot of money for this player, it's because he has quality. I'm sure he's going to score a lot of goals and show his talent, because he has talent."

Liverpool are down in eighth place in the Premier League after a disappointing start to the season in which they dropped points against Fulham, Palace, Manchester United and Everton.

And Nunez is not the only player to have struggled, with fellow forward Mohamed Salah criticised in scoring only twice in six league matches.

But Sissoko feels Salah's team-mates are as much to blame, adding: "It depends on the team also. When you play well, when you score, you make lots of good things, it depends on the team, not one player.

"The team has to play well, and after Mo Salah is going to show his talent."

With a tough run of fixtures ahead and with only two clean sheets so far, Liverpool will also need to improve defensively if they are to climb the table. 

When asked about Liverpool's back line and recent scrutiny of Virgil van Dijk, Sissoko said: "He's still one of the best defenders in Europe.

"[Just] because he's not playing well in one game or three games, you can't say he's a poor player. He has quality.

"He's captain of the Netherlands national team, he plays for Liverpool, and he's shown everyone he's a good player. He's a leader also. 

"Sometimes in football, [things] happen. Sometimes you play well, sometimes you play not good, but I'm sure after the international break all the team is going to win and [take] Liverpool higher."

The Netherlands booked their place in the Nations League Finals as Virgil van Dijk's second-half header sealed a 1-0 win over Belgium on Sunday.

Victory over Poland on Thursday meant the Oranje only needed to avoid a heavy defeat to their neighbours at the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam to seal top spot in Group A4.

Belgium never looked like they had the firepower to pull off such a result, with Liverpool defender Van Dijk securing three points for the hosts by scoring in the 73rd minute.

The result meant the Netherlands topped their group with 16 points, with Roberto Martinez's Red Devils six points behind in second.

Belgium looked bright in the early stages, with Eden Hazard blazing over from a promising position and Michy Batshuayi firing at Remko Pasveer after being played in by Kevin De Bruyne.

At the other end, Denzel Dumfries cracked wide from 12 yards after fine work down the left from Vincent Janssen, which was the closest the hosts came in a first half that saw them fail to have an attempt on target.

Dumfries again went close at the start of the second period, while Belgium's Amadou Onana was denied by a smart stop from Pasveer shortly after the hour mark. 

Steven Bergwijn powered a shot straight at Thibaut Courtois as the Netherlands cranked up the pressure, before Van Dijk handed the hosts victory with a close-range header from Cody Gakpo's corner.

Courtois did well to deny Davy Klaassen and Bergwijn in the closing stages, while Belgium substitute Dodi Lukebakio struck the post with a sensational overhead kick with almost the last kick of the game.

Virgil van Dijk acknowledges he has not performed to the best of his ability during a frustrating start to the season for Liverpool.  

Liverpool have taken just nine points from their first six matches of the Premier League season, their worst return since Jurgen Klopp took charge in 2015.

Postponements following the death of Queen Elizabeth II mean Liverpool have not played a domestic game since September 3, though they clinched a much-needed Champions League victory over Ajax last time out.

While Van Dijk has been an ever-present for the Reds this season, he has not always lived up to his reputation as steady defensive influence, most notably in a 4-1 thrashing at Napoli.

Speaking after the Netherlands posted a 2-0 Nations League win over Poland on Thursday, Van Dijk admitted he has been disappointed with his own displays.

"I know I could have done better in the beginning of the season. I'm not naive about that. I know very well when I make mistakes," Van Dijk said.

"I also know that I am one of the important players at the club and of course also here at the national team. I feel that responsibility.

"Mentally it's a challenge. You feel a lot of pressure on your head. A lot of people forget that too, it's not easy to do that. 

"We all try to show our best and if, in my case, you are one of the mainstays at the club, then you get the criticism you deserve. You have to deal with that and that is not always easy. But I did that just fine."

The Netherlands conclude their Nations League campaign against Belgium on Sunday, with Louis van Gaal's team needing to avoid defeat if they are to secure top spot in Group A4.

Virgil van Dijk took a swipe at Liverpool's critics after a vital Champions League win over Ajax lifted spirits at Anfield.

Captaining Jurgen Klopp's team on Tuesday, Van Dijk saw his fellow centre-back Joel Matip head home from a corner in the 89th minute to earn three priceless points for last season's runners-up.

Mohamed Salah had earlier broken his seven-game barren streak in the competition by firing Liverpool ahead, before a fine goal from Mohammed Kudus brought Ajax level.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric as Matip's goal was awarded, after Dusan Tadic's attempted clearance came from behind the line.

It meant Liverpool cast aside the misery of last week's 4-1 defeat to Napoli, and Dutchman Van Dijk said it should serve to remind players-turned-pundits of the team's great strengths.

Van Dijk told BT Sport: "Coming back from the horror show in Naples, it was very important for us to show a positive reaction, and it's not easy to turn it around, but this is a step to the right direction.

"It was very important to win today and get the good feeling going into the international break."

Asked about the key to turning around the team's fortunes, Van Dijk said: "Not listening to the outside world, that's the most important thing.

"It's funny sometimes, because there's a lot of ex-football players and they know exactly what we go through. They say a lot of things to try to get us down.

"We know that last week was unacceptable, it was very bad, and we tried to make it right. This is a step to the right direction. Don't get carried away of course, because we play so many games."

Van Dijk had a team-high four goal attempts and said: "I should have scored. We felt like we were dangerous at every set-piece, especially the corners, so it was our responsibility to at least convert one, and luckily the one and only Joel Matip did it."

Matip now has 10 goals across all competitions for Liverpool, and the team have nine wins and a draw from the 10 games in which he has found the net.

"I had a few opportunities before and I was happy that I could score," said former Schalke defender Matip. "I wasn't sure [it would be awarded], to be honest, but when I saw the referee then my emotions came out.

"It was a long and tough game, we tried over 90 minutes to create chances and were pushing forward, the whole team."

Manager Jurgen Klopp enjoyed the moment, with Liverpool playing between blank weekends, their latest Premier League games having been called off amid national mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II and a subsequent squeeze on police resources.

"I think everyone could see we understood we had to put a completely different shift into the game," Klopp said.

"We played a lot of good stuff against a really hard-fighting and good opponent. We should have scored more goals from set-pieces especially, I don't know how these balls didn't go in."

He was more than happy for it to be Matip, rather than a striker, coming up with the late heroics.

"I'm not picky in that sense," Klopp said. "It was a nice celebration and showed everything the boys thought today. Nothing is over, negative or positive, it is a first step and a very important step for us."

Virgil van Dijk says Liverpool must stick together to end their poor form after their underwhelming start to the season continued with a 4-1 Champions League defeat at Napoli.    A return of nine points from their first six Premier League games puts Liverpool some way off the pace set by Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham, and their woes were deepened on a chastening trip to Italy on Wednesday.   A Piotr Zielinski brace, as well as goals from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Giovanni Simeone, condemned the Reds to the joint-heaviest defeat in their Champions League history.    Not since Arsenal against Inter in 2003-04 (a 3-0 loss) has an English team started a Champions League campaign with a three-goal reverse, while Liverpool conceded three first-half goals in the competition for the first time since October 2014 (v Real Madrid).   Despite enduring a torrid outing that saw him give away a first-half penalty, Van Dijk expressed his confidence in the Reds' ability to bounce back.   "We're not in the best shape, the best situation, but we're going to make this right – that's the confidence I have," he told the club's website.   "We need each other, we need to stick together – not only us as players but the whole club.    "Obviously we've been through it all and that's the message. Obviously we're all human beings, we want to try to perform as good as we can. Sometimes you can have a bad patch and at the moment we're in it. But I'm confident we can get out of this and enjoy our football again.

"Stick together, don't point fingers. Everyone knows that everyone can do better. What I said, we're not robots, we're trying to perform and you can have bad moments. 

"It's how you deal with them and now we'll definitely have a good look at what happened, speak with each other and focus on the game ahead of us. 

"It's good for us that there's a game quite quickly after this and hopefully [we] get a great performance and result."

Liverpool host Wolves in their next Premier League outing on Saturday, before resuming their continental campaign against Ajax on Tuesday.

Van Dijk knows the importance of getting their Champions League group-stage campaign back on track as quickly as possible, adding: "It can change, definitely. 

"There's so many games still to play but you wanted to have a good start. The situation is how it is. 

"Next game in the Champions League will be Ajax at home and we need the fans, we need a good performance from us. 

"It starts obviously on Saturday with a good opportunity against a good side as well, so we'll give everything. What I said, the key is to be together. We need everyone. 

"If you start blaming others and don't look at yourself or create negativity around the club, then you're not getting out of this. I'm fully confident that we'll turn this around together."

Wednesday's demoralising reverse means Liverpool have lost on all three of their trips to Napoli under Jurgen Klopp, the most they've travelled to a particular side without avoiding defeat during his tenure.

Piotr Zielinski struck twice and assisted another as Liverpool's poor start to the season continued with a humbling 4-1 defeat at Napoli in their Champions League opener.

Jurgen Klopp's side have underwhelmed in their first six Premier League games, winning just twice, and were behind after only five minutes in Naples following Zielinski's penalty.

Alisson denied Victor Osimhen's spot-kick just 13 minutes later, but Napoli were 3-0 up at half-time after strikes from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Giovanni Simeone, the latter on his Champions League debut.

Zielinski finished past Alisson again after the interval before Luiz Diaz responded with a bending effort – a mere consolation goal for Liverpool in the Group A encounter.

Osimhen rounded Alisson before striking the post with just a minute played, but Napoli were soon ahead after James Milner handled Zielinski's effort inside the area.

Zielinski found the bottom-left corner from the resulting penalty and another spot-kick arrived soon after when VAR sent referee Carlos del Cerro Grande to check a Virgil van Dijk foul on Osimhen, who was then denied by Alisson diving to his right.

Van Dijk cleared off the line with the goal gaping for Khvicha Kvaratskhelia but Napoli doubled their lead when Zielinski teed up Anguissa, who fired under the onrushing Alisson.

Alex Meret tipped away a goal-bound Van Dijk header before Simeone, on for the injured Osimhen, turned Kvaratskhelia's driven cross into an empty net on the stroke of half-time.

Zielinski doubled his account just two minutes after the break, dinking over Alisson on the rebound following Simeone's pass, before Diaz curled into the bottom-right corner after Andy Robertson's offload.

Meret pushed a powerful Diaz header over from Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross but Liverpool were unable to recover after a toothless first-half showing.

What does it mean? Liverpool's group-stage run ends as Napoli struggles continue

Liverpool cruised to six wins from as many group-stage games in last year's competition but their attempts to become the first English side to win seven straight such matches ended abruptly.

The Reds have conceded the first goal in five games in all competitions this season, the joint-most of any Premier League side, and were never going to recover after finding themselves three down at half-time in the Champions League for just a fourth time.

Liverpool's third Champions League defeat at Napoli in the last five seasons leaves Group A wide open after the first matchday, in which Ajax smashed Rangers 4-0 in Wednesday's other game.

Kvaratskhelia leaves Trent spinning

Klopp heaped praise on Luciano Spalletti's "interesting project" before the clash and pinpointed Zielinski as the main threat – and the midfielder responded with two goals and an assist.

But Kvaratskhelia should also take the plaudits after regularly tormenting Alexander-Arnold, creating a team-high three chances – one of those the assist for Simeone's goal – before his 57th-minute removal.

Van Dijk dives in

Van Dijk epitomises Klopp's revolution at Liverpool, with his calmness and authority in defence characterising the dominant Reds, but his performances have left much to be desired in recent weeks.

The centre-back fouled Osimhen for the second spot-kick, the second penalty he has conceded in his last seven appearances for the Reds. He had previously not given one away in 150 games in all competitions.

What's next?

Liverpool will aim to recover when they return to Premier League action at home to Wolves on Saturday, while Napoli host Spezia in Serie A on the same day.

Frank Lampard questioned why Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk avoided a red card in Saturday's Merseyside derby after the Dutch defender's late tackle on Amadou Onana.

The centre-back went into referee Anthony Taylor's book for the 76th-minute challenge, when Van Dijk got his timing all wrong and caught Onana just above the ankle.

A gripping match finished goalless, but a red card at that stage of the game could have lifted hosts Everton for the closing minutes.

Manager Lampard could not understand why Taylor was not called to look at the incident again by the video assistant referee.

He said: "If you look at the moment he connects with Amadou's shin and Amadou's foot is on the ground… I'm surprised it hasn't gone to VAR and the referee hasn't been asked to make what I think was the correct decision.

"For me, that was a red card and that changes the face of the last part of the game. The ref and the VAR get that one wrong, in my opinion."

Everton were indebted to the brilliance of their goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, who pulled off eight saves to keep out Liverpool.

That was the most saves the England international has made when keeping a clean sheet in a Premier League game, with crunch interventions to deny Darwin Nunez, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Fabinho standing out.

Lampard hailed his shot-stopper, saying: "Jordan gets fingertips on a few bits that a lot of keepers don't get: pushes the one from Nunez on the bar, the one from Mo Salah at the end.

"Alisson was the same, they're two top goalkeepers. We've relied on Jordan a lot since I've been here. He's an amazing goalkeeper. I'm so fortunate to have a player of his level to pull off saves like that."

Facing Liverpool at Old Trafford is the "perfect game" for Manchester United to kick-start their season, Virgil van Dijk has warned.

United followed up a 2-1 home loss against Brighton and Hove Albion in their opening Premier League game of the campaign with a heavy 4-0 defeat at Brentford last weekend.

The Red Devils find themselves bottom for the first time since August 1992, which is the only previous occasion they lost their opening two games in the competition.

Erik ten Hag is the first United manager to lose his opening two games in charge since John Chapman in 1921 and the Dutchman's task does not get any easier.

United face fierce rivals Liverpool on Monday, when Van Dijk expects the home side to be extra motivated to get off the mark in front of their own fans.

"It's massive, but it's not about making a statement. We want to win and do everything that's possible to win there," Van Dijk said. 

"This year they've had a difficult start and we've not had the best start that we wanted either, so it will be interesting. 

"Obviously they're not in the best situation confidence-wise probably, but it's the perfect game to turn it around for them."

Liverpool finished one point behind champions Manchester City last season, but they have started the 2022-23 campaign with draws against Fulham and Crystal Palace.

That makes Monday's encounter the first time that United and Liverpool have been winless in the Premier League heading into this fixture.

Jurgen Klopp's side have won their past two league games at Old Trafford, including a 5-0 thumping last season, and are looking to make it three in a row for the first time.

"Over the years it’s proven tough for us to win there, though last year was a great result, we can't deny it," Van Dijk said.

"This week we showed a lot of good spirit and fight in training, and we've got to bring that to the game on Monday."

Mohamed Salah was affected by his contract saga in the latter stages of last season, according to Liverpool team-mate Virgil van Dijk.

Egypt international Salah signed a new deal at Anfield last month worth a reported £350,000 a week, making him the highest-earning player in the club's history.

That brought an end to months of speculation regarding the 30-year-old's future, having himself hinted that he may move away as he entered the final year of his previous deal.

Despite Salah finishing last season as the Premier League's joint-top goalscorer alongside Son Heung-min, Van Dijk believes the contract standoff took its toll on the Egypt star.

"At the end of the season, from maybe April until the end, there was a lot of talk about his contract and stuff," Van Dijk told The Telegraph. 

"We're all human beings and maybe that affected him a little bit, unfortunately."

The 118 Premier League goals Salah has scored since his first Liverpool campaign in 2017-18 is 13 more than next-best Harry Kane.

Former Chelsea forward Salah scored 27 goals in his first 31 appearances for the Reds in all competitions last season, compared to four goals in his final 20 games.

He was on the scoresheet from the penalty spot in Saturday's Community Shield win over Manchester City, and Van Dijk has backed his colleague to continue scoring regularly.

"He still showed high levels and quality and he played with a free mind and obviously he's happy to be here and I think everyone is happy to be here," the Dutchman said.

"He showed it already for the last three years. He's under the microscope all the time. He created that himself. He's such a good player and shows that consistently all the time."

Virgil van Dijk told Darwin Nunez to get his "head down, work and be important" for Liverpool after the striker's decisive cameo performance against Manchester City.

Nunez came on with just under an hour played in Saturday's Community Shield clash between the Premier League champions and the FA Cup winners.

He made a telling impact, winning a penalty when his header struck the arm of Ruben Dias to enable Liverpool to restore their lead through Mohamed Salah after Julian Alvarez had cancelled out Trent Alexander-Arnold's opener.

Nunez, signed from Benfica for a fee of £64million (€75m), with a further £21.4m (€25m) in potential add-ons, capped off a 3-1 triumph for Jurgen Klopp's side with a header late in stoppage time.

The 23-year-old had been the target of criticism and social media jibes following some sloppy performances early in pre-season, though Nunez scored four in a 5-0 rout of RB Leipzig last week and slotted in seamlessly to Liverpool's attack at the King Power Stadium.

Van Dijk shrugged off the criticism of his new team-mate, who the defender explained is already an important player in Liverpool's squad following the departure of club great Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich.

"He's important. He's difficult to play against and hopefully he can show it for the rest of the season," Van Dijk told reporters.

"We all help him in some ways and make sure that he's comfortable, he's calm and just work, and don't focus on what the outside world has to say because everyone has to say something these days. So head down, work and be important for the club.

"I don't speak Spanish, so I'm not saying anything to him at the moment, but we have plenty of Spanish speakers in the team and I know for a fact that they help him, and I don't see anything that bothers him at the moment.

"But we will see, everyone has something to say because there are so platforms to do it. So it can hit you but it shouldn't. Just enjoy your game, enjoy the group, enjoy the club, because we are very blessed to be able to play for Liverpool."

It was a sentiment echoed by midfielder Fabinho, who himself took time to settle into the Premier League following a move from Monaco in 2018.

He said: "We saw he's getting better from the first game of the pre-season. He did really well for the team.

"We've had three weeks of training, so now he knows the way we play a little bit. We are learning the way he plays a little bit more.

"We know he is fast, he's strong and he's a proper number nine. He will be in the box, it looks like the ball follows him, he will always get the chance to score.

"So yeah, I think it's really important for him to score in the first official game in a Liverpool shirt. He will be very important for us this season."

Liverpool's victory marked their first Community Shield triumph under Klopp, at the third time of asking.

Including occasions when the trophy was shared, only Manchester United (21) have won the trophy more times than the Reds (16), whose performance delivered a message to rivals City ahead of the new campaign.

Van Dijk, though, knows using the Community Shield display to predict how Liverpool's season could go would be foolish.

"We can't look to the future," the centre-back added. "It's a boring answer but we knew that, for example, two years ago we had so many injuries, those are part of football as well.

"We are focussing game by game. Hopefully it will be a successful season, better than last season. We are excited to crack on, and we will see what the year brings."

This time last year was a very different period for Virgil van Dijk, who was in the process of returning from a serious knee injury.

As a result of that setback, the Dutch defender missed the majority of the 2020-21 season, in which Liverpool struggled in their defence of the Premier League title.

However, with Van Dijk back and a new face through the door in Ibrahima Konate, who arrived from RB Leipzig, Jurgen Klopp's side were ready to mount a challenge for all the major trophies last term.

They fell narrowly short of winning an unprecedented quadruple, but still managed to secure the EFL and FA Cups, while reaching the Champions League final and finishing second in the league by just one point, boasting the joint-best defensive record alongside champions Manchester City (26 goals conceded).

Konate was eased in at Anfield by Klopp, but still made 29 appearances in all competitions during his debut campaign with the Reds, and Van Dijk has waxed lyrical about the ability and potential of the France international.

Speaking to the club's official website during a pre-season training camp in Austria, Van Dijk said: "[Konate is] a very, very good player.

"What I like the most about him is [his] will to learn each and every day as well.

"Obviously there are loads of things that can improve – and that's good because he has time, he needs the experience. In my opinion, experience is a big thing for a centre-half to learn and to take with you.

"In his case, I'm very happy to see him develop, I'm very happy to see him shine on and off the pitch, he's a fantastic character."

Konate will hope to be part of Didier Deschamps' France squad which defends the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but another Reds defender perhaps has more work to do to appear at the tournament.

Joe Gomez also missed a big chunk of the 2020-21 campaign with an injury picked up on England duty, and has not been selected for a Three Lions squad since.

The 25-year-old recently signed a new contract at Liverpool, despite only making 21 appearances last season (11 starts), several of which came at right-back as Klopp preferred Konate or Joel Matip at centre-back.

But after playing regularly alongside Gomez during Liverpool's Premier League title-winning season in 2019-20, Van Dijk was pleased to see him sign a new deal and believes he may even be England's best defender when fit.

"We spoke about it before he signed the deal and I'm just very happy that he's staying at the club, staying with me. Also, I'm happy for the club that he's signed," the former Celtic and Southampton man said.

"He is, in my opinion, [one of] if not the best English centre-back around. Obviously we've both been very unlucky with the injuries we had. His time will come again and hopefully this season he can show that."

Simon Mignolet hopes Belgium can learn from their shock 4-1 defeat to the Netherlands, who outclassed the world's second-ranked team in Brussels.

The form book was on Belgium's side heading into their Nations League opener at home to the Oranje on Friday.

The Red Devils had not lost to their neighbours since September 1997 and had not lost to any side at home since September 2016.

But both of those runs came to an end as Belgium were blown away, with Mignolet – in for Champions League final hero Thibaut Courtois – left horribly exposed.

Nine of the Netherlands' 15 shots came over a 25-minute first-half stretch in which Belgium did not attempt one.

Steven Bergwijn netted the opener shortly after that onslaught, before Memphis Depay scored twice either side of a simple Denzel Dumfries finish in the second half.

It was the first time Belgium had conceded four goals at home since October 2010, but Mignolet had no complaints about the scoreline.

"There are no excuses for this defeat," the goalkeeper said. "You get the chance to play against the Netherlands and you have to grab that opportunity with both hands.

"In the run-up to the World Cup, tonight's game and the remaining matches in the Nations League were good opportunities to measure ourselves.

"We have to learn from this and take things forward to the preparations for the World Cup in Qatar."

The mood in the Dutch camp was rather more cheerful, as captain Virgil van Dijk told NOS: "It was a good win with good football. Everyone was good today.

"Steven Bergwijn in particular was excellent – they couldn't get a grip on him – but also Steven Berghuis and Frenkie de Jong. Actually, I can be positive about everyone. It was a great team performance.

"We did an excellent job, we forced them to make mistakes and we scored good goals."

Van Dijk came straight from playing against Courtois in the Champions League final and will now bring his long season to an end while the Netherlands turn their focus to further Nations League matches.

"It's time to recover," the centre-back added. "I'm going on holiday now and the rest can prepare for Wales [on Wednesday]."

Son Heung-min can count himself unlucky after the Tottenham star missed out on a nomination for the PFA Player of the Year.

Spurs forward Son scored 23 Premier League goals in the 2021-22 season, sharing the competition's Golden Boot award with Mohamed Salah.

The Liverpool talisman is included on the list of six nominees, alongside team-mates Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane.

Son's strike partner Harry Kane does make the cut, while Kevin de Bruyne is the sole representative of champions Manchester City.

His team-mates Bernardo Silva and Rodri may also consider themselves hard done by, having both enjoyed wonderful campaigns.

Cristiano Ronaldo could not take Manchester United into the Champions League on his return to the club, but his 18 league goals have seen him receive a nomination.

The PFA also confirmed the list of nominees for the Young Player of the Year award, with City attacker Phil Foden joined by Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka and his club-mate Emile Smith Rowe.

That trio will go up against Chelsea pair Conor Gallagher, who shined on loan at Crystal Palace this season, and Reece James, as well as Aston Villa's Jacob Ramsey, for the award.

The end of the club season means individual awards are dominating the discourse right now in European football. Well, if you can't beat them, join them.

Rather than just run through the usual categories highlighting the best player and best coach – although we will do that, too – why not focus on some alternative prizes?

The NBA Awards provide a fine blueprint, rewarding superstars alongside breakout performers, recovering veterans and valuable bench players.

Relying heavily on Opta data, we'll steer clear of team honours – a blow to Wout Weghorst, whose eight blocks (leading all forwards in Europe's top five leagues) might have carved out a spot leading the All-Defensive First Team – but there remains plenty to go at...

Most Valuable Player

Only one player had more goal involvements than Karim Benzema (39) in the top five leagues this season, and Real Madrid would really rather not talk about the man top of the charts. That other leading France forward had a hand in 45 goals, yet the value of Benzema's contributions to a LaLiga title triumph separates him from the rest.

Benzema's goal involvements were worth 29 points across the season, the most of any player, with Kylian Mbappe, of course, second on 28. Just considering Benzema's 27 goals, he accounted for 20 points – trailing Dusan Vlahovic (22 points) alone.

 

Required to perform repeated rescue acts in the Champions League, too, Madrid's number nine played only 2,596 minutes in LaLiga – or 75.9 per cent of the full season. He was therefore involved in a goal every 67 minutes, narrowly second in this regard behind Erling Haaland (66 minutes) among those to play 1,000 minutes or more across Europe.

Coach of the Year

Were this the NBA, Carlo Ancelotti would surely also qualify for the Lifetime Achievement Award. In guiding Benzema and Madrid to the LaLiga title, the Italian became the first coach to win each of Europe's top five leagues, following successes in Serie A with Milan, the Premier League with Chelsea, Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain and the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.

Ancelotti, also the oldest LaLiga-winning coach at 62, earned only two more points than Zinedine Zidane had in finishing second in the prior season, but Madrid maintained this high standard despite losing both of their senior centre-backs heading into the campaign as they seemingly saved for the now failed pursuit of Mbappe.

Meanwhile, Everton, the team Ancelotti left for his second Madrid stint, finished 20 points short of their 2020-21 total, spending the season battling relegation rather than chasing Europe and perhaps putting his work at Goodison Park in context.

Rookie of the Year

Given the differences between the NBA and Europe's top five leagues, it is difficult to quantify exactly how many players might be considered 'rookies', let alone identify the best of them. Someone like Luis Diaz, for example, played his first minutes in the top five leagues this season, yet he had already scored goals in the Champions League and Copa America so surely doesn't fit the bill.

On the other hand, Hugo Ekitike definitely does.

Among the nine players who were teenagers at the start of the season and finished with 10 or more goal involvements, only Ekitike had never previously started a game in Europe's top five leagues. His 13 involvements in 2021-22 (10 goals, three assists) arrived every 98 minutes on average, the best rate of this group and the 18th-best overall – just behind Neymar (also 98 mins) and ahead of Son Heung-min (101 mins).

The 19-year-old Reims forward, who turned down a transfer to Newcastle United in January before sustaining a thigh injury, scored with an astonishing 32.3 per cent of his shots – second behind Wissam Ben Yedder (34.7 per cent) among players with 20 or more attempts – and has been linked with moves to PSG and Borussia Dortmund, as well as St James' Park.

 

Defensive Player of the Year

As elsewhere, many of these awards focus on offensive talents, so there is a dedicated category for the best defender – and there could really only be one winner this year.

Injury restricted Virgil van Dijk to 371 minutes in 2019-20, and he was badly missed by Liverpool in their title defence, as they conceded 42 Premier League goals – their most since shipping the same number in the season before the centre-back's 2018 arrival.

With Van Dijk fit again this term and missing only four matches, the Reds conceded the joint-fewest number of goals across the top five leagues (26, tied with Manchester City). No defender played a part in more clean sheets (21).

Those figures show the impact Van Dijk had on the team as a whole, but his performances in individual battles were equally impressive. The Liverpool man won 73.5 per cent of his duels and 77.5 per cent of his aerial duels – both the best marks of defenders to make 30 or more appearances in the top five leagues.

Comeback Player of the Year

Okay, so the NBA no longer highlights a Comeback Player of the Year, but the NFL continues to identify an individual who has overcome the adversity of the previous campaign, allowing us to recognise one of the stories of the season.

Of course, for the reasons outlined above, Van Dijk might have had a claim to this prize in any other year, yet he is beaten this time by a player who actually won Serie A in 2020-21.

Within weeks of that title triumph, Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020, prompting fears for his life and then, even after his recovery, his career.

But Eriksen was fitted with an ICD, left Inter, joined Brentford in January and promptly won each of the first five Premier League games he started for the relegation-threatened Bees. Finishing with seven victories from 10 starts, only nine players in the top five leagues created more chances over this period than Eriksen (29, including four assists).

Most Improved Player

There were no shortage of players showing signs of significant improvement in 2021-22. Five-goal Euro 2020 forward Patrik Schick starred on the club stage at last, Newcastle striker-turned-midfielder Joelinton enjoyed a resurgence and Vinicius Junior was outstanding as Benzema's foil, but Christopher Nkunku stood head and shoulders above the rest as he swiftly established himself among Europe's elite.

Nkunku had scored a mere six goals and assisted the same number for RB Leipzig in the 2020-21 Bundesliga, but those goal involvements increased dramatically from 12 to 33 this season, ranking fifth across Europe's top five leagues and joint-third when excluding penalties (32). With 20 total goals and 13 assists, the newly capped France international was one of just 12 players to reach double figures in both categories.

Of players to feature in at least 20 games in each of the past two campaigns, only Moussa Dembele (20) and Schick (15) improved their season-on-season goal tallies by a greater margin than Nkunku (14); Dembele alone (24) showed greater improvement in terms of goal involvements (21).

 

In a season in which Leipzig recovered from a slow start to make the top four by a single point, Nkunku's contributions were vital. He had a hand in 45.8 per cent of their Bundesliga goals and 50.8 per cent of those he was on the field for.

Twelfth Man of the Year

The NBA's Sixth Man of the Year is recognised as the season's most impactful bench player, which feels like a nice addition here.

Were this a long-standing European football award, it might have by now been renamed in honour of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who scored 17 goals in 84 Premier League substitute appearances – one every 88 minutes on average. Given Rodrygo Goes and Eduardo Camavinga largely reserved their heroics for the Champions League, the 2021-22 equivalent in the top five leagues could be Matheus Cunha.

Ben Yedder scored the most goals from the bench this season, but those seven counted towards 25 in total as he also started 29 matches. Cunha was restricted to only eight starts for Atletico Madrid, yet he scored three and assisted four in 21 outings as a substitute, matching Ben Yedder and Ignacio Pussetto with a Europe-high seven such goal involvements.

Atletico's man in times of need, Cunha contributed to vital goals, too. He was one of only two players to both score and assist in the same game as a substitute on more than one occasion (also Arnaud Nordin), with the second of those two performances seeing the Brazil forward introduced against Valencia with his side 2-0 down; Cunha scored seven minutes after his introduction and later teed up the winner in a 3-2 victory, justifying his season-long role as a super-sub.

Liverpool will have Virgil van Dijk to call on for the Champions League final.

The defender suffered an injury in the FA Cup final against Chelsea earlier this month and subsequently did not feature in either of Liverpool's final two Premier League outings.

Liverpool won both games, coming from behind to beat Southampton 2-1 and Wolves 3-1, though those victories were not enough to secure the Premier League title, which went the way of Manchester City.

While Liverpool's hopes of a quadruple are now over, Jurgen Klopp's team will go in hunt of a third trophy of another fine season when they face Real Madrid at the Stade de France on Saturday, and one of their key men will be available for selection.

Van Dijk told Liverpoolfc.com: "Yeah, I'm fine, absolutely fine. No issues and very excited for Saturday, of course."

Asked if the two-week break had helped him recover, Van Dijk explained: "Yeah, I think physically definitely. 

"My body is definitely enjoying a little bit of rest after playing so many games, so many tense moments, and I think getting a little knock after the FA Cup final was maybe a sign that my body needed to have a rest. 

"I feel absolutely fine now and looking forward to, hopefully, a special evening."

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