Van Dijk and Gomez’s different recovery paths as Liverpool pair step up returns
In Liverpool's season of what ifs they are the surely the biggest, with the double blow of their serious, campaign-ending injuries within just over three weeks of each other still being felt even now.
Of course Jurgen Klopp and his players should have adjusted to the absences of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez – and then later even Joel Matip – a lot better than they have done.
Miserable records have been set, and Liverpool's presence at Europe's top table – one that it has to be a struggle to get reservations for, because that's football – is now under threat.
Van Dijk and Gomez's knee injuries in October and November respectively have been the toughest blows to Klopp's side, but as the pair were seen in training on Tuesday there was a feeling that it may not be too long before they are seen again.
The duo – who formed an excellent partnership at the back when Liverpool won the Premier League last season – have embarked on long roads to recovery, and as they get towards their destination they might just find that they veer off in different directions.
The very short term
So first thing's first, it is very unlikely that either centre-back will play again this season.
Liverpool have five Premier League games left, and they are probably likely to need to win all five in order to get into the top four, but that won't make Klopp press the panic button and throw one of his first-choice defenders in.
Recent weeks have seen an injury absence for Nat Phillips – who probably started the season as sixth or seventh choice centre-back – derail the side because it has again required Fabinho to move back into defence, but Phillips was named in the XI that would have faced Manchester United on Sunday if the game had gone ahead.
He's impressed alongside Ozan Kabak, and that will surely be the defensive pairing for the rest of the campaign.
With club action off the table, then both men are likely to have looked at Euro 2020 as their main target as they hoped to return to fitness, but this is where their recoveries could differ.
Gomez, whose injury came on international duty with England, hasn't really been given a chance for the Euros by anyone with even a remote understanding of his injury.
England were forced to pay compensation to Liverpool because his blow happened on their watch, and the Three Lions are sure to want to be extra cautious over an immediate recall before he's even played for Liverpool.
With the likes of John Stones, Harry Maguire, Conor Coady and Tyrone Mings all expected to be named in Gareth Southgate's squad the need for Gomez isn't quite desperate, and England are likely to want to let the 23-year-old recover.
The mood music around Van Dijk is rather different though.
The Dutch camp have long been making encouraging noises around his involvement at the tournament, and the subject continues to crop up with increasing regularity at Klopp's press conferences.
The German remains cautious though.
Speaking last Friday, he said: "Virgil's knee. Look, I don't want to hold him back, but you cannot force it as well.
"Now let's just go through all these kind of things. You are all long enough in the business to know if you want to play a tournament, you have to train before – proper football training weeks before, not a week before.
"You cannot after 10, 11 months out, train a week and play football. That's just not possible, it should not be possible.
"Nobody holds him back, I can promise all the people in Holland or wherever. But we cannot force it as well and we will not. We speak about a player and his career.
"Nobody should force that and nobody will – not Holland, not us, and [not] Virgil as well. He just tries to get fit as quick as possible."
Is there a sense of desperation there?
Van Dijk will be 30 in July, in the week of the Euros semi-finals, and incredibly he has never played at a major international tournament.
The defender only made his international debut in 2015, and with dismal Dutch campaigns seeing them fail to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, he will surely be desperate to take this chance.
The Dutch FA are craving their captain too, and with the squads for the finals being increased to 26 players it could be that Van Dijk is included even if he isn't 100 per cent fit.
Klopp won't like that of course, and Liverpool are sure to keep an eye on his workload and training programme, perhaps by sending a specialist coach with him, but it might just be that player power forces Van Dijk in to Frank de Boer's travelling party, where he is sure to be a big influence off the pitch at least.
Evian, live young
Long haul travel to the likes of the US or China is again unlikely to be on the agenda for Liverpool this summer as restrictions remain, but they will be aiming to go back to Evian for what Klopp calls "his week" of pre-season as the hard yards are put in.
Last summer the Reds were forced to cancel their annual trip to Klopp's favourite training camp on the border between France and Switzerland due to coronavirus restrictions, as they hastily moved to Austria instead to begin a season that would often see them shunted from pillar to post.
They should return for 2021 though, and it could well be there that the duo stand or fall in their bids to prove their fitness for the upcoming campaign.
Klopp will want to see a certain level of capability from them by then, and "his week" could be crucial.
Foes in friendlies
Providing that they come through that, then a return to the pitch a red shirt must surely be around the corner.
With glamorous friendlies around the world off the agenda, Liverpool are currently in talks over facing Manchester United in a couple of matches shortly before the start of the new Premier League season, with one at Old Trafford and one at Anfield, perhaps in front of full houses.
Cynical money-making exercises? Yes, but also potentially valuable preparations for the two returning defenders.
Klopp is sure to have his eye on those matches and will hope to have Van Dijk and Gomez available for them, however they get to that point.
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