On the Virg no more

EVEN before it opened, the transfer window resembled a fish market when the trawlers have just docked. Normally pooh-poohed by the Big Boys who do their business in the summer, January 2018 promises an entertaining diversion from the one-horse title race.

Kick-started by Liverpool (Liverpool!) breaking the world record for a defender, the New Year's Eve games ensured further high-level haggling.

As the tears streamed down Gabriel Jesus's face at Selhurst Park, the price for Alexis Sanchez soared by several million. And when Kevin de Bruyne was carried off, even the invincible became vulnerable.

Not that Man City are about to fall off a cliff but Pep Guardiola acknowledged that "internal discussions" would ensue in the wake of a double injury blow to the champions elect.

With barely time to pause for breath before the next game, not even the sight of John Stones on the bench could mask the need for more cover in central defence.

Already smarting from missing out on Virgil van Dijk, the latest injury to Vincent Kompany and another indifferent performance from Eliaquim Mangala were reminders that, for all their overall supremacy, they are thin on the ground in two key areas.

While City will be looking to ensure they don't lose the title, Manchester United face an altogether different challenge – to win anything. Linked with the likes of Mesut Ozil, Eden Hazard, Antoine Griezmann, Mauro Icardi and Paolo Dybala, it suggests Jose Mourinho really doesn't think his squad is up to much after all.

Prising big bucks out of the Glazers in January was something that Alex Ferguson failed to do, but a sense that United are slipping in the great scheme of things has panicked the owners into shelling out £600 million (RM3.3 billion) since the great man left.

Mourinho will be determined to land at least one major target or his frustrations (and excuses) will be mounting. With Roman Abramovich unlikely to countenance the sale of Hazard to United, it would appear one of the others is more likely.

One club that doesn't seem to mind selling to domestic rivals is, of course, Arsenal. With a long history as a Manchester feeder club, a cut-price Ozil (who will cost nothing in June) would appear the favourite.

Conversely, the Gunners are likely to extract more out of City for Sanchez and, given the Chilean's lack of effort (until this past week anyway), the fans will be less than devastated to see the back of him if an over-the-odds fee can be gained.

The news of the Nike ad featuring Philippe Coutinho in Barcelona colours has caused some cynics to rain on the Van Dijk parade, but Liverpool are just as determined to keep their playmaker now as they were in the summer.

If the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) were to blink now, it would have to be an extraordinary figure – way more than what they turned down in the summer. Their fierce resolve back then won as many plaudits as their dogged pursuit of the Dutch defender has, and Kopites are seeing a pattern developing.

Throw in the saga of Naby Keita, whom Leipzig hung on to like a polar bear does her cubs, and we can see that Liverpool have built a reputation for getting (or keeping) their man.

It has been hard-earned as buying droughts – one winter window was skipped altogether – have led to accusations of penny-pinching. Not entirely fairly, Liverpool were once perceived as a selling club – especially when Luis Suarez left for Barca.

A cloud of suspicion has hung over FSG thanks mainly to their predecessors, the dreaded Hicks and Gillett. Through no fault of their own, John Henry & Co were tarred by the same anti-American brush and their association with Moneyball suggested the very opposite of record-breaking transfers.

Even Jurgen Klopp, as much as Reds have fallen for the German's charisma, built his reputation on moulding players rather than buying them – as Mourinho has not been slow to point out.

But what we are seeing with Van Dijk, Keita and Coutinho, and the refusal to accept second best, is a long-term plan. In an age of knee-jerk reactions even from big-name managers and zillionaire owners, it is a welcome change – and surely good news, not just for Liverpool, but for the game as a whole.

I wrote earlier this season that if they had all three players on the books at the same time, Liverpool could be contenders – for anything. Even without Keita, the Reds should make the top four and could go deep in the Champions League. But to sell Coutinho now would change all that.

Yes, the Brazilian is the key and even if they hang on to him for the rest of this season, there remains the distinct possibility of him heading for the Nou Camp in the summer.

Liverpool will know who they want to replace him with and will show the same kind of doggedness in getting him. Eventually, they will have their team at the top again. It is a rare glimpse of stability in a chaotic world – and may yet succeed. By buying Van Dijk, they've already regained their mojo.


GOOD: Liverpool

On and off the field, it was a great weekend for the Reds. Buoyed by news that the owners had stumped up a world record for a defender, they wasted no time in demonstrating why they need him against Leicester.
But showed character and class in coming back to secure the 3 points.

BAD: Newcastle

Another horrible, blank and boring display that doesn't belong in this league. Even Rafa Benitez can't get blood out of stones – or cash out of Mike Ashley. They're going back down if they're not careful.

UGLY: Jason Puncheon

The flying scissors kick on Kevin de Bruyne does not belong in today's game. Wild, knee-high and miles from danger, it was a disgrace and deserving of red.

STUPID: Ashley Young

Elbow in the stomach, lashing out, generally losing it … Like Puncheon, the United man was lucky only to see yellow.