LIVERPOOL: Virgil van Dijk returns to his former club Southampton on Friday with a growing reputation as one of the most influential figures in the Premier League title race between his Liverpool side and Manchester City.
For all their attacking threat, Jurgen Klopp's men owe a huge debt to their Dutch defender, signed from Southampton 15 months ago for an eye-watering £75 million ($99 million) fee, the size of which raised eyebrows.
But now the investment looks one of the wisest in recent Premier League history, with one Van Dijk moment in particular, during the weekend win over Tottenham, being held up as an example of his peerless form.
With the game finely poised at 1-1 at Anfield on Sunday, Tottenham had a two-on-one break, featuring Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min against the Liverpool centre-half.
Van Dijk took the decision to leave Sissoko with the ball, forcing him into a shot that the nervous Tottenham man missed hopelessly, paving the way for Liverpool to snatch a dramatic last-gasp winner.
"Of course," said teammate Andy Robertson when asked if that one moment showcased Van Dijk's skills to their utmost.
"He made the right decision there. Look, it's getting to the point of the season where both teams wanted to win it. If it's maybe in the first month of the season, it probably sees out as a 1-1 draw.
"But they're fighting for Champions League spots and they needed three points and we needed three points. That's why we brought on extra attackers and we went for it and tried to get the three points and luckily we did.
"But these situations are going to happen. We're maybe going to get a wee bit exposed at the back but there's nobody better to deal with it. Luckily we got away with one there and they've not got away with it."
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Robertson was not the only admirer following the Dutchman's role in that victory and, with every passing week, the case for Van Dijk to be named as the Premier League's player of the year is gaining momentum.
Liverpool's protracted bid to sign the defender from Southampton, which had been thwarted the previous summer, was met with disbelief by many as he became the most expensive defender in the history of the game.
But his displays last season, in helping Liverpool reach the Champions League final, answered many of the doubters and Van Dijk's form has, if anything, been even more impressive this season.
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling is another strong candidate for the end-of-season individual awards but Van Dijk has made a strong case and the only slight concern for Klopp after the Tottenham victory was the sight of his key defender using an ice pack on a muscle injury after the game.
However, concerns he could be a fitness doubt for the return to his old club were quickly dispelled when Liverpool showed footage of the 27-year-old taking part in a full training session on Wednesday.
"He's so important to us not only as a player but as a person. I couldn't say a bad word about him even if I wanted," said Klopp.
"Yes he has improved us and he has improved since he came here as well. He is a different player to when he was at Southampton. Champions League quarter-finals, semi-finals and final help you as a player."
Man City return to Premier League summit but Guardiola sweats on injuries
Pep Guardiola counted the cost of a comfortable 2-0 victory over Cardiff that took his team to the top of the Premier League on Wednesday as he faced the prospect of an FA Cup semi-final without a fit left-back.
City, still in the hunt to win all four of the trophies they entered at the start of the season, take on Brighton at Wembley on Saturday, bidding to reach their second final of the campaign.
But they will be without left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko, who limped off against Cardiff after just 18 minutes with a hamstring injury that will rule him out for a number of games.
And with England international Fabian Delph also injured and Frenchman Benjamin Mendy yet to prove his match fitness to his manager, Guardiola admitted he has a problem ahead of the Wembley visit.
"It doesn't look good," said Guardiola. "We will know after tomorrow but it doesn't look good for the next games.
"Fabian Delph is out, Benjamin Mendy, we will see tomorrow how he feels, how he trains, we don't have many options."
Striker Sergio Aguero is also a doubt for the semi-final against Brighton, with Guardiola not prepared to risk the Argentine veteran against Cardiff with so many crucial games coming up, particularly the two-legged Champions League quarter-final against Tottenham.
But at least City advanced to the top of the table with the minimum of effort, moving a point clear of Liverpool after the same number of games played, the 25th time this season the top place in the division has changed hands.
"We have the feeling if we drop points we will not be champions," said Guardiola, who saw his side win an eighth consecutive match in the league.
"But people said it would be easy, midweek against Cardiff. The way we started, the focus on what we have to do.
"The goals we scored with the chances, we should have scored more, that's the regret but the other side it was really good."
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Guardiola was able to make seven changes for the visit of Neil Warnock's struggling team.
The alterations did not dull City's attacking intent but Gabriel Jesus was guilty of a string of first-half misses.
Kevin De Bruyne claimed the first goal, after just five minutes, from Aymeric Laporte's through ball, with a strong run and blistering shot from a tight angle that left questions over Neil Etheridge, beaten at his near post although the City man later confessed he had intended to cross the ball.
Leroy Sane struck shortly before the interval, driving a low shot into the far corner after Riyad Mahrez's cross had been cushioned into his path via the chest of Jesus.
But the Brazilian should have done better from any number of first-half chances, starting after just 34 seconds when he slid in and narrowly missed converting De Bruyne's low cross into an open net.
After the break, City maintained their dominance and, in one intoxicating five-minute spell alone, six good City chances came and went -- Etheridge saving well from teenage debutant Phil Foden twice, a Laporte header, Mahrez and Sane, while Fernandinho struck a post for good measure.
By the time Oumar Niasse missed a glorious one-on-one chance against Ederson late on, the outcome had long since been decided.
"They started like Real Madrid of 10 years ago, everybody is so quick and confident on the ball, with their movement," said Warnock of City. "I've not seen anything like it."
Sarri hails stars of future as Chelsea young guns torment Brighton
Maurizio Sarri hailed Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as the future of Chelsea after the young guns inspired a crucial 3-0 win over Brighton on Wednesday.
Sarri couldn't afford a negative result against struggling Brighton at Stamford Bridge after being subjected to fresh calls for his sacking during Sunday's unconvincing win at Cardiff.
The angry Chelsea fans who showed their displeasure at the weekend were in part motivated by Sarri's refusal to select England winger Hudson-Odoi.
But Sarri finally unleashed Hudson-Odoi for his first Premier League start, while Loftus-Cheek also made the most of a rare appearance as the youngsters bolstered Chelsea's bid for a top-four finish.
Hudson-Odoi set up Olivier Giroud's first-half opener and Loftus-Cheek provided the assist for Eden Hazard's superb second.
England midfielder Loftus-Cheek capped a morale-boosting victory for the troubled Blues when the 23-year-old netted a majestic third to kill off FA Cup semi-finalists Brighton.
"The youngsters played very well, but I was already sure about it. Callum now is ready to play in every match tactically," Sarri said.
"He improved a lot during the season. I'm really very happy with him because he also defended well.
"He is happy but I told him he missed an easy chance in the first half! He has to stay with his feet on the ground."
Chelsea are up to fifth place, behind fourth-placed Arsenal on goal difference as the race to qualify for the Champions League approaches a dramatic denouement.
Achieving that target is essential for Sarri as he battles to avoid the sack so he can benefit from his youngsters' progress in the near future.
"Loftus-Cheek for the first time this season is without a problem with his back. He scored a wonderful goal and played well," Sarri added.
"I hope they can be the future of the club. They can become top players. Callum can be one of the best in Europe."
Hudson-Odoi, has been directly involved in nine goals in his nine starts in all competitions, said: "The manager told me to go and express myself. I feel comfortable, hopefully I did well."
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Loftus-Cheek added: "We have both worked all of our lives for this chance, years of hard work and now we start in a Premier League game together. That's good for the academy."
Criticised for leaving Hudson-Odoi as an unused substitute against Cardiff, Sarri at last bowed to public pressure.
The 18-year-old's fine performances for England recently had shone the spotlight on Sarri's decision to use him so infrequently.
Infuriated by his bit-part role, Hudson-Odoi has considered leaving, with Bayern Munich making their interest public before having a bid rebuffed by Chelsea in the January transfer window.
Hudson-Odoi's name was loudly cheered when the team was read out before kick-off and he almost made the perfect start when his burst into the Brighton area ended with Shane Duffy deflecting his shot narrowly over.
Adding a much-needed cutting edge to Chelsea's attack, Hudson-Odoi unfurled a pin-point cross that was headed over by Cesar Azpilicueta.
Hudson-Odoi was a constant threat and he played a key role as Chelsea made the breakthrough in the 38th minute.
Hazard's precise pass found Hudson-Odoi on the right flank and he effortlessly eased past Anthony Knockaert with a nimble piece of footwork before whipping over a low cross that Giroud cleverly flicked in from close range.
Hudson-Odoi was a far more potent presence than either Willian or Pedro have been on the flanks for Chelsea this season and he went close with a second half header.
While Hudson-Odoi's potential is undeniable, Hazard remains Chelsea's main man, a point he stylishly underlined in the 60th minute.
Teed up by Loftus-Cheek on the edge of the Brighton area, Hazard fooled Lewis Dunk with a drop of the shoulder that left the Brighton defender sliding past him, giving the Belgian time to bend a fine finish into the far corner.
Inspired by that moment of magic, Loftus-Cheek produced a show-stopper of his own three minutes later when he curled a superb 25-yard strike into the top corner for his second goal in successive games.
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