Why Jurgen Klopp could be considering benching Virgil van Dijk for Liverpool’s trip to Watford

There’s a case to be made for the colossal centre-back to be given a spell of respite at Vicarage Road.

Liverpool fans were equally startled and worried by the omission of their star defender in a big game.

No-one expected Virgil van Dijk to be left out of Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI for last month’s 3-2 Champions League victory over AC Milan.

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Naturally, supporters feared the centre-back had broken down again having only just returned from a serious knee injury that had sidelined him for the best part of 10 months.

However, any dread was allayed when his name was spotted among the substitutes - but his serious setback was the principal reason why van Dijk was on the bench against Milan.

Klopp was wary that he needs to manage the Dutchman’s game-time to ensure he doesn’t return to the treatment room for another prolonged period.

Keeping van Dijk at his zenith will be paramount to whether Liverpool can have a successful season and challenge for silverware again.

He’s the bedrock who transformed the Reds after his £75 million arrival in January 2018. Every penny of that club-record fee has been justified, with the Champions League and Premier League titles were added to the Anfield trophy cabinet.

Virgil van Dijk lifts the Champions League after Liverpool’s triumph over Tottenham in 2019. Picture: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

And when Klopp’s men travel to Watford on Saturday (12.30 BST), there’s a case to be made about why van Dijk should again be given a brief spell of respite.

International involvement

Van Dijk returns to Merseyside after going away with Holland during the international break.

In truth, the Netherlands were hardly challenged in their two 2022 World Cup Group G qualifiers.

A dominant 1-0 defeat of Latvia was followed up by a 6-0 thrashing of minnows Gilbraltar.

Yet van Dijk, who opened the scoring in the latter fixture, racked up 180 minutes of action.

When the ex-Southampton defender is away with his country, it's Louis van Gaal's prerogative to play his troops he’s selected as much or as little as he wants.

Was there really a need to play van Dijk against Gilbraltar? Perhaps not. But with Norway and Turkey also chasing top spot in the group, van Gaal must have felt that no chances could be taken.

Although the opposition might not have been too testing, it was still a pair of full matches that would have had an impact on van Dijk’s body.

Virgil van Dijk celebrates scoring for Holland against Gibraltar. Picture: JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images

Upcoming games

In Klopp's head, he surely must have one eye on Liverpool's two crucial games next week.

The Reds travel to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday where they'll be desperate to maintain their 100% record.

Group B has been given the moniker the "Group of Death" with AC Milan and Porto also involved.

Liverpool have already swatted those two clubs aside but the trip to Atletico is arguably the toughest they'll face.

Diego Simeone's well-organised outfit are reigning La Liga champions and made a fine start in a bid to retain their crown, sitting joint-top after eight games.

Two seasons ago, it was Atletico who dumped Klopp's men out of Europe's elite club competition in the last 16.

In the first leg, the Spanish outfit edged a 1-0 success at the Wanda Metropolitan before winning 3-2 at Anfield after extra-time to go through.

That was without Luis Suarez in their ranks.

Now the Kop favourite dons the red and white stripes of Atletico and will be looking to pile misery on his former club.

Suarez still retains as much swashbuckle and guile as he did during his scintillating three-and-a-half years at Anfield. Aged 34, he remains among the world elite, scoring four goals in 10 games so far this term.

Luis Suarez celebrates scoring for Atletico Madrid against Bracelona. Picture: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

The Reds will need to be on their mettle to thwart Suarez, along with the likes of Antoine Griezmann - and a peak, revitalised van Dijk gives them that chance.

Then Liverpool have one of their toughest and most highly anticipated away days of the season on Sunday October 24.

They make the trip to Manchester United where they’ll have to thwart Cristiano Ronaldo and Co.

It’s still early days but United are a top four rival, at the very lest, and picking up points at Old Trafford could be fundamental come the end of the campaign.

Three fresh centre-backs

Klopp's perhaps afforded the chance to rest van Dijk even more so because of the situation of his other options.

There's fierce competition between Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konate for a place alongside van Dijk in the rearguard.

Despite all being top-class centre-halves, the trio remained at Kirkby for the international break.

Matip has been Klopp's prefered option for the majority of the season. The 30-year-old has been retired from Cameroon duty for several years now and will have topped up his energy levels.

Gomez has previously been a regular in the England squad but his lack of games this season is a key reason why he's been overlooked for the past two squads.

The ex-Charlton defender recovered from a long-term knee injury at the start of the season and has had to be patient.

However, he's looked comfortable whenever he's featured and could do with an outing.

Konate, meanwhile, is experiencing what plenty of Klopp's previous signings have on Merseyside in the past.

He's been made to look on from the sidelines as he acclimatises to the playing style at Anfield.

Konate, a £36 million summer recruit from RB Leipzig, has made just two outings so far.

Yet he did impress in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on his Premier League debut.

Another appearance would boost his confidence and underline he’s well thought of by the backroom staff.