Virgil van Dijk reveals what’s at stake for Liverpool

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool need the Champions League to attract top talent – Getty Images /Diego Souto

Virgil van Dijk has warned Liverpool they need to qualify for next year’s Champions League in order to attract the elite talent needed to put a miserable season behind them.

Liverpool’s attention immediately turned to a top-four result after their expected European exit in the hands of Real Madridand there’s no mistaking how damaging missing out on top-flight competition will be.

Jurgen Klopp hopes to convince Jude Bellingham to move to Anfield this summer and Liverpool are also keeping tabs on Mason Mount’s contract hiatus at Chelsea. Financial complications of such transfers aside, failure to qualify for the Champions League would raise doubts as to whether the England midfielders want to move to Anfield ahead of their rivals.

“If we want to be where we have been for the last five years, we need quality imports, especially when the players leave,” said Van Dijk.

“I think that’s pretty obvious. The players will leave. This is obviously announced. But everyone knows that this will be very difficult. It will be very difficult to find the right players, but the club has to do its job in this case. We still have a lot of games ahead of us and we want to get into the Champions League. I think that will also help attract the best players in the world. Not always, but it will definitely help.”

Facing a daunting trio of games after the international break, Liverpool travel to Manchester City and Chelsea before hosting Premier League leaders Arsenal. That run will determine if a Champions League spot is still within reach, with Brighton, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur currently at an advantage.

“It will be very formative and we all know that,” said Van Dijk.

“It was a season where we couldn’t find the consistency that we’ve had in recent years. It sounds very simple, but it’s the hardest part of football and the hardest part about being a footballer is being consistent in every single game. We will give absolutely everything because I want to play in the Champions League. We all want to play in the Champions League. The fans want to play in the Champions League.”

Liverpool’s hopes of a consistent finish to the season suffered another setback when teenaged midfielder Stefan Bajcetic was sidelined for the remainder of the season with a kidnapper injury. The 18-year-old has established himself in the first team in a breakthrough season.

As Jurgen Klopp’s players trudged disconsolately out of the Bernabeu after a humiliating reverse defeat by Real Madrid, thoughts inevitably turned to how soon they would return to Europe’s biggest stages.

Nobody at Liverpool will hide the negative consequences of being relegated to the Europa League or worse, the UEFA Conference League.

The financial outlay is enormous. Since Klopp guided Liverpool back to the Champions League in 2017, the Merseyside club has earned close to £500m in various UEFA prize money and broadcasting revenue.

Last season alone was worth £102million as the club reached the Paris final. A round of 16 exit is still worth an estimated £80m this time around.

But with more dividends comes higher costs. Despite so much success as Liverpool played every game imaginable in a 63-game season in 2021/22, the club recently announced profits of just £7million. That’s why the owners of Fenway Sports Group have made their drive to invest so public.

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool need the Champions League to attract top talent - Getty Images/Mateo Villalba

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool need the Champions League to attract top talent – Getty Images/Mateo Villalba

Why did they earn so little? Because profits were reinvested. Players’ contracts include bonuses based on appearances and trophy success, and as more individual accomplishments account for increasing earnings, their savvy agents push for a healthy pay rise in these drawn-out contract negotiations. Media and football fans obsess over a club’s ‘net spend’ in each transfer window to portray an owner as generous or frugal, pay rises and agent fees are still generally overlooked when considering where all the money is going.

Older players like Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk are on £300,000-a-week contracts, reflecting their distinguished contribution and the club’s Champions League status. The expectation when they signed long-term deals that UEFA’s cash flow would remain intact.

The longer a club is banned from the Champions League, the harder it is to maintain one of the highest wage bills in Europe.

Added to this is the impact on transfer targets and their affordability. Liverpool have been able to plan guaranteed UEFA earnings in every summer transfer window. They face an anxious wait to see what the final two months of this season bring.

Klopp has often said that when a player’s sole motivation is to join a club in the Champions League, he shuts down immediately. But the advantages of being there are obvious. Jude Bellingham will have his choice of targets and if Liverpool aren’t in the top four he will have a dilemma he didn’t anticipate when planning his career last summer.

But for all the obviously undesirable, deeply unappealing side effects, there are recent examples that show that not making the top four doesn’t have to be unfortunate.

A late failure at the end of last season didn’t stop Arsenal from signing Gabriel Jesus to spearhead Mikel Arteta’s revival. It could be argued that Arsenal’s absence from the intensity of midweek Champions League football was a boon to their unexpected title offering.

Casemiro was also a consecutive Champions League winner at Real Madrid but was still happy to relegate himself to smaller European competition with his move to Manchester United despite being handed a financial offer he couldn’t refuse.

FSG can also point out that they have managed the club in such a way that their financial security does not depend on a top four finish. They have only ever spent what their budget allows – a necessary contrast to their predecessors, whose entire business model was based on ongoing Champions League participation. Liverpool’s exit from the competition after five consecutive seasons in 2010 hastened the end of George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks’ reigns as they could no longer guarantee bank repayments.

Liverpool aren’t as vulnerable in 2023 and owners have publicly pledged to strengthen the squad no matter where they end up in the Premier League. The Champions League exile would be more of a sporting setback and a major blow to the club’s self-esteem than an economic catastrophe.

Liverpool have 12 Premier League games left to make any nightmare scenarios irrelevant.

There will be no open-top bus parade, no book written about the season and no hastily commissioned documentaries should Liverpool salvage a miserable campaign by reclaiming a Champions League spot by May.

But just like the 2020/21 peak, there will be a clearer path to immediate recovery should Klopp’s side finish strongly to preserve Liverpool’s status.

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