Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher believes expectations have to be managed when it comes to Virgil Van Dijk’s return to Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The Holland captain made his comeback from nine months out after anterior cruciate ligament surgery on his right knee with a 20-minute appearance in the 4-3 friendly defeat to Hertha Berlin on Thursday.
Van Dijk effectively has two more opportunities to get some pre-season minutes in as Liverpool have back-to-back matches against Bologna in Evian next Thursday before two home games against Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna.
He is likely to only feature in one of those Anfield fixtures, which will leave him well short of match practice ahead of the trip to Norwich for their Premier League opener on August 14.
“I think we have to be careful and I think Jurgen Klopp will be,” Carragher, speaking at a Soccer Aid event, told the PA news agency.
“I don’t think we should expect that Virgil Van Dijk comes back into Liverpool and Liverpool are going to automatically win the league again this season.
“He’s had a really serious injury and he’s got to make sure he is not rushed back.
“If he’s back to his best he is the best central defender in world football and that’s what Liverpool will want over the next five or six years, not the next five or six weeks.
“If he doesn’t make the first game of the season it’s not the end of the world, it is about making sure Virgil Van Dijk is 100 per cent right so he’s in a position where he can have the next five or six years at Liverpool at a top level.
“It may be a gentle start with Virgil until we see him when he is 100 per cent right, but if that could be on that first game of the season and he can play the next few games I think everyone would be delighted.”
After the nightmare scenario last season when Liverpool had all three senior centre-backs out for the majority of the campaign, Klopp has strengthened with the £36million signing of RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate.
But the 22-year-old will need a period of adaptation to English football, and with Joe Gomez, who also made his comeback against Hertha after a similar time out as Van Dijk with a knee problem, and Joel Matip, who did not feature after January because of an ankle injury, both coming back from long-term lay-offs, who to play at Carrow Road becomes a tricky decision for the Reds boss.
“I don’t really envy Jurgen Klopp picking that centre-back partnership for the first game,” added Carragher.
“Right now, if everyone is at their absolute best, the partnership has always been Gomez and Van Dijk, but I think it is going to be difficult for them to be at their absolute best as both have had serious, long-term injuries.
“Whether Konate can break that one up… and Matip always comes in and does a very good job.
“It’s a difficult one to answer as I don’t think all the centre-backs will be 100 per cent fit and firing, they’ll need to get confidence and games, get that belief back.”
Sources at the club have suggested there may not be any further signings, with the focus on tying down established players to new contracts.
Carragher would, however, like to see the squad strengthened in two areas if possible.
“I think in terms of numbers it’s not a problem, I think it is in terms of quality,” he said.
“If we didn’t bring in another addition it may be difficult to knock Man City off the top, and let’s not forget Chelsea, the European champions, and Manchester United, who have had a great window with (Raphael) Varane and (Jadon) Sancho.
“I’d like to see someone who could get goals, whether that’s from midfield or part of the front three.
“I am just wary a little bit with Liverpool, after last season going into this season, as to whether there are enough goals in the team for them to go and win the title.
“But I am expecting a big season from (Sadio) Mane. He didn’t have his best season but he’s looking really sharp in pre-season, hopefully he can be the guy who can plug that gap in terms of goals.”
:: Soccer Aid for UNICEF 2021 takes place on Saturday September 4 at the Etihad Stadium. The money raised from this year’s game will help UNICEF fight back against the Covid-19 pandemic by helping to deliver two billion vaccines worldwide. Tickets are available at: www.socceraid.org.uk/tickets