Joel Matip: Liverpool’s forgotten centre-half could play a big role in final

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Lost, amid the sublime composure of £75 million Virgil van Dijk, the fan-pleasing marauding runs of full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson and the promise of Joe Gomez, stands Joel Matip, the forgotten centre-half who may have as big a say in tomorrow’s Champions League Final as any Liverpool star.

It was not meant to be that way. The season opened with the 27-year-old centre-half almost an after-thought in the hearts of minds of supporters who had seen him miss the end of last term, and the final defeat to Real Madrid, with a hamstring injury.

This was to be the season in which van Dijk and the hugely impressive Gomez were supposed to make the centre-half pairing their own, Dejan Lovren, fresh from Croatia’s run to the World Cup Final, the obvious stand-in when required.

But, as the football fates so often conspire, events have turned out very differently in this most memorable of Anfield seasons.

First, Lovren returned from his international exertions in Russia lacking fitness and recovering from injury, then, in a December victory at Burnley, Gomez suffered a broken leg that would rule him out for the bulk of the campaign.

It was a combination of events that would have unhinged a less well structured and superbly-managed squad but one which allowed the German-born Cameroon international to step into the spotlight.

Fast forward five months, and add in a significant and sublime defensive master class against Lionel Messi in the semi-final win over Barcelona, and Matip, the footballer from a family of academics, has emerged as the thinking man’s choice as Liverpool’s most valuable player in recent weeks.

Whisper it quietly, but even the revered van Dijk may have been eclipsed by his partner over this heady run to Madrid and to runner-up place in the Premier League.

“I always believe in myself but now I have the opportunity to play and I try to use it,” said Matip this week.

“We have a lot of quality in the team. It doesn’t matter who is coming in from the bench. It is really nice to be part of it.

It is really good that we have in the last weeks so many wins. It is hard to compare to other parts of my career but I really enjoy the time.

“I am quite fine. I know it is one of the biggest games but at the moment I am fine. I just want to enjoy it if given the opportunity.

“They are the kind of games you always want to play as a kid. Now we are there it would be stupid to make it more pressure than it is.”

As his pronouncements make clear, Matip may not be the most riveting quote amidst a Liverpool squad big on personalities and characters although, given his background and linguistic skills, it is certainly not due to a lack of intelligence or an ability to articulate.

Rather, Matip presents himself as the antithesis of so many footballers of the modern era, devoid of Instagram or Twitter accounts and without the need to have a team of publicists and agents on constant stand-by.

But, latterly at least, Matip’s football has done more than enough talking for him as he has returned to the early promise he showed after Klopp made him his first signing, a free transfer from Schalke, after arriving on Merseyside three summers ago.

Joel Matip: Liverpool's forgotten centre-half could play a big role in final

That point is often lost in the discussion about the money Klopp has been able to spend on building a squad good enough to push Manchester City all the way to the finishing line in the league and reach a second consecutive European cup final.

Yes, van Dijk cost a then-staggering £75 million – albeit a figure that now looks reasonable – but homegrown Alexander-Arnold and £10 million Roberston means that Liverpool’s likely starting back four against Tottenham was assembled for a total of £85 million.

Bear in mind that two summers ago rivals City spent £123.5 million on three full-backs – Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy – within the space of a week and Liverpool’s transfer nous suddenly looks other worldly.

Matip’s initial steps into the Liverpool first team looked promising but, as history may have proved, he suffered over time from the effects of playing in the same defence as a less than solid Lovren and calamitous goalkeeper Loris Karius.

A Liverpool defence anchored by van Dijk, and goalkeeper Alisson, is a very different proposition these days and, perhaps not surprisingly, Matip has benefitted as much as anyone from that solidity at the back.

More than that, the skills Matip first displayed in Germany as a midfielder and, in youth football, a striker have been showcased increasingly in recent weeks with marauding runs and incisive passing from Matip now a common sight for the Liverpool faithful.

Van Dijk remains on a pedestal but victory in Madrid and Matip may not be far beneath him.

“He is a great defender, he is so calm, he gives the whole team much more stability,” said Matip, matter-of-fact when asked to analyse van Dijk’s on the Liverpool defence.

And that was about as much in-depth analysis as Matip was prepared to offer in the build-up to the biggest game of his career.

Harry Kane, or whomever Tottenham send out to beat Matip Saturday, will surely find the defender just as un-forthcoming on the field.

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