Liverpool (AFP) – Liverpool spent much of the last 30 years living in Manchester United’s shadow, but after three decades their time to be crowned champions of England again is nigh.
A 2-0 win over United at Anfield put the European champions 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League and 30 points ahead of fifth-placed United, with a game in hand to come on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side just 22 matches into the season.
Even in United’s heyday as they reeled in and overtook Liverpool’s record of 18 English titles by reaching 20 under Alex Ferguson was there ever such a gulf between the sides as there is now.
Sunday’s scoreline flattered the visitors, who needed the aid of VAR and a tight offside call to deny Liverpool two more goals.
By then, United already trailed to Virgil van Dijk’s header as the Dutchman towered above the man who replaced him as the world’s most expensive defender, Harry Maguire, to put Liverpool on their way to a 13th consecutive league win.
Two years on from his £75 million ($98 million) move from Southampton, Van Dijk has been a transformative figure in turning Liverpool from flakey entertainers into serial winners under Jurgen Klopp.
United tried to copy Liverpool’s example when their long-running pursuit of Maguire ended with them paying Leicester £5 million more for the England international in August.
Maguire was even handed the United captaincy this week after the departure of Ashley Young to Inter Milan, but has not had nearly the same impact at both ends of the field.
– ‘Prolific’ –
Van Dijk’s opener was his 10th goal for Liverpool, four of which have come in the Premier League this season.
“He’s probably one of the, if not the, most prolific centre-halves in the league,” said Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose corner picked out Van Dijk.
“To have someone like that, who is going into the box and putting his head on the end of things is fantastic.”
Maguire has yet to net for his new club, but it is his failure to make a marked improvement to United’s defence that has been the biggest disappointment.
Since the opening weekend of the season, United have kept just three clean sheets in the league.
Liverpool, by contrast, are again the meanest backline in the division thanks in large part to a run of eight consecutive clean sheets.
As injuries robbed the Reds of goalkeeper Alisson Becker and his central defensive partners at different stages of the campaign, Van Dijk has been the ever-present in the Liverpool defence as he is yet to miss a minute of the league campaign.
After Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum had goals ruled out, Jordan Henderson hit the post and Mohamed Salah missed a glorious chance to kill United off, Liverpool had to withstand a nervy final 20 minutes before Salah added a second with virtually the last kick of the game.
However, Van Dijk held firm, constantly in the right position to head clear or get his body in the way.
“He’s showed that he’s probably the best centre-half in the world over the last 18 months and he showed that again today,” added Alexander-Arnold.
“His defensive work probably goes a bit unnoticed because we’re so used to seeing it but you can’t take it for granted.
“He’s always there in the right places, the amount of headers he was getting out the box for us, winning headers off corners, is priceless for us.”
The drastically different returns on lavish fees splurged on Van Dijk and Maguire are symptomatic of how Liverpool have left United in their wake.
United have spent substantially more in the six-and-a-half years since Ferguson retired, but Liverpool’s business has been far shrewder and they are now reaping their rewards.
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