Messi the best I've seen but Van Dijk deserved Ballon d'Or, says Liverpool boss Klopp

By Sports Desk December 03, 2019

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp hailed Lionel Messi as "probably the best player I have seen in my life" but thinks Virgil van Dijk should have been awarded the Ballon d'Or.

Barcelona superstar Messi the prestigious honour for a record sixth time on Monday, with organisers France Football declaring his seven-point margin over Van Dijk to be one of the narrowest in the award's 63-year history.

The Barcelona captain finished top of the count with 686 points, just ahead of Van Dijk's 679.

While recognising Messi as the greatest player of his generation, Klopp feels Van Dijk should have been rewarded with the prize for his stellar contribution to Liverpool's Champions League win last season.

He told a media conference: "The decisions are made by journalists, right? I see it slightly different. Lionel Messi is probably the best player I have seen in my life, but last season I cannot remember a more impressive season by a defender ever.

"It would have been right if Virgil had won as well. We won the Champions League and he had an outstanding season."

Van Dijk is likely to line up at the heart of Liverpool's defence for the Merseyside derby against Everton at Anfield on Wednesday.

Monday's FA Cup third-round draw conjured up the exact same fixture for the first week of January, with Klopp revealing he would have preferred an easier tie to kick off their cup campaign.

"I didn't run through my living room and celebrate," he said. "It's not exactly what you wish for, but we have no problem playing Everton. It's a big game against big opponents. Obviously, we start the hard way. We cannot change that and we have time to prepare for that Everton game after this one."

Klopp confirmed Liverpool have no new injury concerns for Wednesday's game but says Joel Matip has still not recovered from a knee injury, which has kept him out since the 1-1 draw with Manchester United on October 20.

"Joel needs a bit more time," he explained. "It's healing but not exactly what we wish for."

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    Atletico Madrid appear clear underdogs as they welcome European and world champions Liverpool to the Wanda Metropolitano this week.

    Liverpool have reached consecutive Champions League finals, winning the decider at Atleti's home last season, and are on course for a stunning record-breaking first Premier League triumph.

    Diego Simeone's Atleti have similarly been counted among Europe's elite in years past, winning LaLiga in 2013-14 as they lost the Champions League final, a continental feat that was repeated two years later.

    But the Spanish side are facing a battle just to finish in the top four in their domestic league this season.

    They face Liverpool in the Champions League last 16, hosting the first leg on Tuesday, and we use Opta data to assess just where they have fallen away ahead of this mammoth task.

     

    Steadily slowing since 2014

    Simeone has long had a reputation for setting up his side to stifle the best in Spain and across Europe, but in 2013-14 – the greatest season in their modern history – Atleti packed a punch in attack.

    The LaLiga champions scored 116 goals in their 61 matches in all competitions – 1.9 per game.

    As they returned to the Champions League final in 2015-16, Atleti netted 89 times in 57 matches (1.6 per game), while they average just 1.1 per game this term.

    Diego Costa alone scored 35 in 2013-14, and Atleti clearly lack a similarly prolific marksman right now, but their style of play in attack has also changed considerably.

    Atleti still have a similar portion of possession – 46.8 per cent in 2013-14 to 47.5 per cent this campaign – yet they were previously far more effective at launching attacks from their low block.

    A total of 108 fast breaks across their 61 matches in their best season works out at 1.8 per game. That was down to 0.4 fast breaks per game in 2015-16, and 0.5 per game in 2019-20.

    Atleti have simply become far slower and therefore easier to defend against.

     

    Alvaro Morata no marksman

    Atleti's issues would still not be quite so grave if they were taking chances with the same regularity as previously, but a study of Expected Goals (xG) provides cause for concern.

    Costa could have been expected to score 31.85 times across the 2013-14 season but instead beat that xG figure with his tally of 35.

    The ability of Simeone's side to compete again two years later was largely due to the talents of Antoine Griezmann, meanwhile, signed after the LaLiga title success.

    The France striker outperformed his xG of 18.84 by some distance with a total of 24 goals in all competitions, taking several chances he would not have been expected to score from.

    This season, Alvaro Morata is Atleti's top scorer with just eight. Worryingly, he would have been expected to score 12.85 times already.

    Joao Felix (three goals, 5.87 xG), Costa (two goals, 2.92 xG) and Vitolo (no goals, 1.62 xG) have all toiled in the final third, too, explaining Atleti's poor goals return.

     

    Defensive standards slipping

    And Atleti's problems are not just at one end of the field. Jan Oblak remains one of Europe's finest goalkeepers, but even he cannot match previous standards behind a much-changed defence.

    The Slovenia star was outstanding in 2015-16, conceding just 26 times across 51 matches, keeping 32 clean sheets and saving 82.67 per cent of shots faced on target.

    This term, Oblak has already let in 22 goals in just 31 games, with his save percentage 76.84

    Where Atleti could have expected to concede 45.31 goals four seasons ago and allowed just 31, the margins have slimmed considerably: 27.5 xG conceded versus 24 conceded in 2019-20.

    Just as Atleti have not effectively replaced Griezmann in attack, they look to be feeling the losses of Diego Godin, Lucas Hernandez and Filipe Luis in defence, with Oblak unable to stem the tide.

    Liverpool's all-star attack can now fancy their chances against a previously stingy back line.

  • Mane out to overtake Ronaldo, BVB braced for Mbappe – Champions League in Opta numbers Mane out to overtake Ronaldo, BVB braced for Mbappe – Champions League in Opta numbers

    Liverpool return to the setting of their sixth coronation as European champions on Tuesday, as they face Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano in their last-16 first leg.

    The Reds beat Tottenham 2-0 at Atletico's ground last year to win the competition for the first time since 2005, having been defeated in the final the previous campaign.

    They go into Tuesday's encounter as big favourites due to a combination of their remarkable form and Atletico's well-documented struggles.

    Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain tussle in Germany in Tuesday's other fixture, with their contest sure to capture the imagination of neutrals given the amount of attacking talent on display.

    Ahead of Tuesday's action, we take a look at the key data from both games…

    Atletico Madrid v Liverpool

    0 - Atletico have never lost at home under Diego Simeone in the Champions League knockout stages (W8 D4). In those 12 games, they have only conceded two goals.

    3 - Liverpool, who beat Genk and Salzburg on matchday three and matchday six of the group stage, have never won three consecutive away Champions League games. They last did so in the European Cup back in September 1984 under manager Joe Fagan (five in a row).

    10 - Liverpool's Sadio Mane has scored 10 goals in 14 Champions League knockout games since 2017-18. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has been more prolific over that period (11 goals).

    3 - Liverpool have always progressed against Spanish opposition in two-legged Champions League ties (3/3): 2-2 on away goals v Barcelona (2006-07, round of 16), 5-0 on aggregate v Real Madrid (2008-09, round of 16), 4-3 v Barcelona (2018-19, semi-finals).

    50 - If he plays, this will be Alvaro Morata's 50th Champions League game. Fifty per cent of the Atletico striker's goals in the Champions League have come in the knockout phase (7/14).

    Borussia Dortmund v PSG

    1 - Dortmund have made it past the Champions League last 16 only once in the past five seasons. That was in 2016-17 under current PSG coach Thomas Tuchel – they were eventually knocked out by Monaco in the quarter-finals.

    8 - PSG have reached the Champions League knockout stages for the eighth consecutive season – only Real Madrid (23), Barcelona (16) and Bayern Munich (12) are on a longer run. However, in that time, the French side have never gone past the quarter-finals and have been eliminated in the last 16 in each of the past three seasons.

    2 - Two of the three youngest players to have scored three or more goals and delivered three or more assists in the Champions League since last season play for Dortmund: 19-year-old Jadon Sancho (three goals, three assists) and 21-year-old Achraf Hakimi (four goals, three assists). The other is PSG's 21-year-old Kylian Mbappe (nine goals, eight assists).

    30 - Mbappe has had 30 goal involvements in 30 Champions League games (19 goals, 11 assists). He has scored three goals against BVB, his joint-best record in the Champions League against a single opponent.

    22 - Dortmund's previous 22 goals in the Champions League have all come from open play, the longest current run among the remaining sides in the competition.

  • Rumour Has It: PSG yet to begin contract talks with Neymar Rumour Has It: PSG yet to begin contract talks with Neymar

    Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly yet to begin talks with Neymar over a new deal.

    The Brazil international was linked with a return to Barcelona before the start of this season, but ended up staying in Paris.

    Yet after claims last month that Neymar wanted a new deal at PSG, it is reported no negotiations have been held just yet.

     

    TOP STORY – PSG YET TO BEGIN CONTRACT TALKS WITH NEYMAR

    PSG and Neymar are yet to meet to discuss a possible extension, according to Le Parisien.

    Neymar, 28, is contracted to PSG until 2022, but there have been no talks over a stay beyond then.

    The forward is expected to return from injury in PSG's Champions League last-16 first leg against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.

    ROUND-UP

    - Barcelona appear to have found their replacement for the injured Ousmane Dembele. Sport reports the LaLiga giants have decided to pay Leganes forward Martin Braithwaite's release clause of €18million. Braithwaite has six goals in 24 LaLiga games this season.

    - Bayern Munich are lining up a replacement for Jerome Boateng. France Football reports RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano, who has a €60m release clause, has become a priority for Bayern.

    - With Champions League football next season slipping away from Roma, the Serie A club may be unable to sign Chris Smalling. Corriere dello Sport reports Tottenham, Everton and Juventus are interested in Smalling, with Manchester United wanting €20m (£16.7m) for the 30-year-old.

    - Two of Arsenal 18-year-olds are apparently attracting interest from Liverpool. Football Insider reports the runaway Premier League leaders are looking at Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka.

    - Roma are considering a move for RB Leipzig right-back Lukas Klostermann, according to CalcioMercato. Klostermann, 23, has been capped eight times by Germany.

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