Stephen Hunt

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN HUNT

Three de­feats in the last four league games has left Pep Guardi­ola in the un­usual po­si­tion of chas­ing in a league ti­tle race, but this is just a blip for Manch­ester City.

ACOU­PLE of months be­fore Vir­gil van Dijk joined Liver­pool, I was at Wal­sall on a dark and cold Tues­day night to watch the Dutch de­fender play for Southamp­ton re­serves against As­ton Villa.

I use the term ‘play’ loosely. He was hor­ren­dous and looked like he had downed tools at that stage of his Saints ca­reer. He was a shadow of the out­stand­ing de­fender who, along with the goal­keeper Alis­son Becker, has trans­formed the Liver­pool de­fence this sea­son. They were the miss­ing pieces in Jur­gen Klopp’s jig­saw.

If you re­mem­ber, Southamp­ton ini­tially blocked Van Dijk’s move to An­field in sum­mer 2017, prompt­ing him to do some­thing I would sim­ply never ex­pect of a foot­baller — he ef­fec­tively stopped play­ing for six months. He was com­ing back from in­jury in the game at Wal­sall and was go­ing through the mo­tions to get match-fit.

But what a player he is. Al­though he could have joined Manch­ester City or Chelsea, or any club in Europe for that mat­ter, his heart was set on Liver­pool. I can imag­ine that he went to Chelsea, for ex­am­ple, and felt it was a heart­less place at that time whereas Liver­pool felt warm and wel­com­ing.

No doubt Klopp makes a dif­fer­ence too. He is a man­ager play­ers want to play for, but An­field has al­ways been a spe­cial place for play­ers and they are an at­trac­tive club again. Neu­trals en­joy watch­ing a Liver­pool team play good foot­ball.

Three de­feats in the last four league games has left Pep Guardi­ola in the un­usual po­si­tion of chas­ing in a league ti­tle race, but this is just a blip for Manch­ester City and I ex­pect the cham­pi­ons to re­spond pos­i­tively against Southamp­ton to­day be­fore they play Liver­pool on Thurs­day night.

Hav­ing watched Southamp­ton lose to West Ham last week, it is go­ing to be a real strug­gle for them against City. Per­haps new man­ager Ralph Hasen­huttl has been work­ing them too hard to get his press­ing game into his play­ers, but they looked tired in the 2-1 de­feat.

It takes time for play­ers to adapt to a dras­tic change of style and sys­tem and Hasen­huttl will be try­ing to get his mes­sage across at the same time as win­ning im­por­tant foot­ball matches. This is a tough pe­riod for Southamp­ton and if ever there was an away banker, it is at St Mary’s to­day.

Sure, there will be times when they close City down and the crowd will give them a lift, but Guardi­ola’s team can pass around them and score goals be­cause they are play­ing for their places in the game against Liver­pool.

All eyes will be on Thurs­day’s game. It prom­ises to be an­other bril­liant game be­tween two ex­cep­tion­ally tal­ented teams and the out­come will most likely de­pend on who the star per­form­ers are on the night.

I ex­pect Kevin De Bruyne to get 70 min­utes against Southamp­ton to­day — more min­utes on the clock to get him ready for Thurs­day. City seem to be eas­ing him back from in­jury this time. Roberto Firmino has been very influential for Liver­pool in the last few games as the link be­tween Mo Salah and Sa­dio Mané and I think he will have a ma­jor say for Klopp’s team.

Back to the game at St Mary’s last week and I have to say there are not many bet­ter hold­ing mid­field­ers in the Premier League at the mo­ment than De­clan Rice. It is no sur­prise that West Ham have moved to se­cure him with a new long-term deal as I have no doubt that his per­for­mances this sea­son will have been catch­ing the eye of some of the big­ger clubs.

To my mind, Rice has huge po­ten­tial. He is an­other 10 per cent away from be­ing ex­cep­tional. The big test for him now is to main­tain the level of his per­for­mances since he be­came a reg­u­lar in the first team this sea­son.

Rice is as good a ball-play­ing cen­tre-half as Manch­ester City’s John Stones or Le­ices­ter’s Harry Maguire, and yet the mid­field po­si­tion West Ham are us­ing him in is his best on per­for­mances so far. He has that nat­u­ral abil­ity to see dan­ger and close down the op­po­si­tion quickly while mak­ing it all look so easy. His pass­ing abil­ity is also ex­cel­lent.

Play­ing reg­u­larly this sea­son has been an enor­mous help for Rice. Since he first broke into the team there has been a buzz of ex­cite­ment. As he gets more used to play­ing, he will learn and im­prove and play games to get bet­ter.

He doesn’t need to make a de­ci­sion on whether to play for Ire­land or Eng­land to progress. He might have needed Ire­land ear­lier in his ca­reer but now he is sim­ply get­ting bet­ter in the West Ham first team. He is play­ing in the best league in the world and he has been phe­nom­e­nal.

Rice is 10 per cent away from be­ing ex­cep­tional

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