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Van Dijk shines as Klopp's unsung heroes thrive

  /  autty

Having swept aside West Ham last weekend, Jurgen Klopp's side needed to dig deep to see off Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park

For Liverpool, only two words were needed.

Job done.

Their flying start to the new Premier League campaign goes on. Played two, won two, scored six, conceded none.

Job done. "Pretty cool," as Jurgen Klopp would say.

Klopp knew that this game, under the lights and in front of one of the Premier League’s noisiest home crowds, would tell him more about his side than last week’s Sunday stroll against West Ham at Anfield. He knew they would not have things all their own way against a speedy, tenacious Crystal Palace outfit, that their concentration and their character and their speed and their toughness would be tested. Roy Hodgson’s side, he said, are “just a really good football team” – one who would thoroughly examine the Reds’ credentials.

That they did. Liverpool’s second win of the new season was far uglier than the first, but no less important. If they want to be genuine challengers instead of just the aesthetes’ choice, these are the games they have to negotiate.

Last season, you were more likely to see the Reds win 7-0 than 1-0. Their last win by that scoreline came a-year-and-a-day ago, ironically against Palace. Sadio Mane, in stoppage time, made sure that run continued. The scoreline probably deserved the gloss in truth.

Klopp’s team favour thrashings over slogs, but they were made to work here. Goals at the end of each half gave them the points, on a night when they were asked to dig deep, defend well and keep their composure. "It wasn't a brilliant performance," the manager said. "But it was a win, it was enough!"

There was no goal for Mohamed Salah here – though he had a vital hand in both – and none for Roberto Firmino either. Mane raced clear at the end to notch his second of the season, but this was not a game for Liverpool’s front three to steal the show.

Instead, Klopp will look to his other heroes. To Alisson Becker, who was as assured as can be on his first Premier League away start. The goalkeeper’s ability to pass the ball began several Liverpool counterattacks, while he made a crucial save at 1-0 to keep out Luka Milivojevic’s free-kick. His handling, whether under high balls or skidding shots, was faultless.

In front of him, Virgil van Dijk did what Virgil van Dijk does, winning header after header against Christian Benteke and ensuring that the Reds’ penalty area was kept secure and that their attacks had a starting point. What a class act the former Southampton man is, what a difference he has made to this team. Benteke has been a thorn in Liverpool’s side many times in the past, but he was pocketed here by the Dutchman. As Palace chased the game, the Belgian was taken off. He looked relieved.

Alongside Van Dijk, Joe Gomez underlined his emergence as a serious centre-back option for Klopp this season. The England international made one crucial tackle to thwart Wilfried Zaha in the first half and seems to be growing into the role alongside his £75 million colleague. Dejan Lovren will expect to return once fit, but the issue is less clear now than it was a fortnight ago.

Elsewhere, James Milner extended his run of never having lost a Premier League game in which he has scored. It stands at 48 now, after the captain slotted a penalty just before half-time. Palace felt Salah had fallen theatrically under Mamadou Sakho’s challenge; Liverpool fans merely rolled their eyes at their former defender’s rashness in the box.

Milner, at 32, is very much the elder statesman of this Liverpool squad but his engine shows no sign of slowing. He set the tone in terms of aggression, putting one particularly good challenge in on Zaha in the first half, and buzzed about the pitch, filling spaces, winning second balls, connecting with team-mates. Never flashy, always effective. He’ll play many, many games this season, despite Klopp’s plethora of midfield options. Fabinho, the £40m summer signing, was not even named in the matchday squad for this one; he has a job on his hands as the likes of Milner and Gini Wijnaldum raise their game.

Klopp cut a satisfied figure at the final whistle, and no wonder. He had spoken in the build-up of the need to “deliver, again and again and again.” The idea, he said, was not “to celebrate all week and then fall hard” and his side heeded his warnings.

They looked like contenders pre-season, and nothing we have seen in the opening two games has changed that. Manchester City have set the tone, but Liverpool look ready to follow.

Strap yourselves in…