By Neil Robinson
(Reuters) – Liverpool centre back Dejan Lovren says playing alongside Virgil van Dijk fills him with confidence as the pair prepare for the ultimate challenge of stopping Real Madrid’s famed forward line in Saturday’s Champions League final in Kiev.
They have forged a strong partnership since an injury to Joel Matip thrust them together at the heart of a Liverpool defence that began the season in a collective wobble.
The signing of Van Dijk for 75 million pounds changed all that and while 28 goals had been leaked in the 23 Premier League games before the Dutchman’s arrival, only 10 have been conceded in the 15 since.
Although introducing goalkeeper Loris Karius and left back Andy Robertson also played a part in tightening the defence, Van Dijk’s composure has radiated through the team.
“It is always good to receive quality and Virgil has definitely the quality,” said Lovren. “He helped the team to improve defensively and also to bring this calmness into the team.
“I feel personally much more confident when you know you have a really good partner next to you and he showed already at Southampton that he is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. It is great we didn’t take too much time to connect with each other in the games,” added the 28-year-old.
The memory of Lovren’s dispiriting performance against Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the season, when he was widely lampooned for a display that led to his substitution, has been replaced by the picture of a sure-footed defender prospering alongside his new partner.
“Usually it takes more but when you have the quality, you feel it in the team. We had quite good games this season,” said the Croat.
Liverpool have proved the big winner in twinning Lovren’s raw courage with Van Dijk’s pace and uncanny ability to read situations.
The pair were particularly effective against Manchester City over the two legs of the Champions League quarter-final, controlling English football’s sharpest attack with quiet effectiveness.
Given that Van Dijk, 26, has already coped with an acrimonious parting from Southampton and the scrutiny which comes with being the world’s most expensive defender, he seems able to handle anything this season can throw.
He is typically unfussed by the challenge of Real, who have scored 30 Champions League goals this season.
“It’s a one-off game. It’s 90 minutes. You never know what can happen, but we will be prepared for everything,” he said.
“We need to look at ourselves, we need to make sure we are ready, 100 percent, play how we want to play, defend how we want to defend, and we can make it difficult for everyone. We know Real Madrid is a top, top team.”
Van Dijk will be charged with stopping Cristiano Ronaldo, who is the competition’s top scorer with 15 goals this season and will be seeking to score in a fourth Champions League final.
“We know all about that man,” said Van Dijk, who appears unfazed by Real’s talisman.
“I don’t think about those things. I think about what we are going to do. What we will do as an attack, midfield and defence,” he said.
“It is the biggest game in club football. We know it is only one game. We want to give everything that we have in this game and hopefully that is enough.”
(Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Toby Davis)