Twelve months ago, Virgil van Dijk was coming to terms with the biggest disappointment of his career.
Now, he’s looking to add another Champions League winners medal to his collection, and re-establish himself as Europe’s best defender in the process.
“I feel great right now,” the Dutchman said this week, and no wonder.
After the nightmare of last season, the busted knee and that long, lonely road to recovery, things could hardly have gone better for the 29-year-old since.
With him back in the side, Liverpool have been very much back in business. They’ve already won two trophies this year, and on Saturday in Paris they have the chance to add a seventh European Cup.
Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti and Karim Benzema stand in the Reds’ way in the Stade de France, on what promises to be a thrilling occasion.
For Van Dijk it will be appearance No.51 of a gruelling campaign. Only three Liverpool players – Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota and goalkeeper Alisson Becker – have played more games this season.
Remarkable really, given everything that happened last year, but Van Dijk’s recovery from that ruptured anterior cruciate ligament has been as impressive as Liverpool’s march to glory.
Some players never fully recover from an injury like that, but he looks as good, if not better, than he did before.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Reds captain Jordan Henderson tells GOAL. “He’s a special player and, physically, he’s a monster, so I never had any doubts.
“Of course, we missed him an awful lot, and it was a difficult time for him, but I knew he could come back and be the same, if not better and stronger.
“Injuries are the worst part of football. You feel helpless, watching your team-mates and unable to do what you love. It’s really difficult.
“But Virgil has come through the other side and his performances this season show he’s not too bad, is he?!”
Van Dijk himself says it took him “three or four months” to get back up to full speed, but his form since the turn of the year has been superb, and vital as Liverpool embarked upon a spectacular assault on four fronts.
“I feel very good now,” he told Rio Ferdinand’s Between the Lines show this week. “And the funny thing is I can get even better than I am now.”
There is no doubt about the impact he has on Jurgen Klopp’s side. With him in the team, there is a poise, a surety and a sense of organisation about Liverpool, all of which was sorely lacking last season, when injuries decimated their squad and left them, in Klopp’s words, “on three wheels” for much of the campaign.
Don’t believe him? Consider this: when the Reds faced Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals, their centre-back partnership was Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak, with Ben Davies and Rhys Williams on the bench. Unsurprisingly, they lost 3-1 on aggregate.
It should be different in Paris, where Klopp’s toughest decision is who will partner Van Dijk.
Will it be Joel Matip or Ibrahima Konate, both of whom have enjoyed stellar campaigns? Joe Gomez, a key part of the 2019-20 title-winning side, must content himself with the role of fourth-choice.
Liverpool conceded 42 Premier League goals last season, but that figure was reduced to 26 this time around, and in Van Dijk’s last 16 league starts, they shipped only six.
They have plenty of game-changers at Anfield, difference-makers and stars, but in terms of influence and importance, Van Dijk may eclipse even the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Alisson Becker.
He will arrive in Paris fresh, having shaken off a minor niggle picked up in the FA Cup final earlier this month.
He trained fully this week, and knows he will need to be at his best to compete with the likes of Benzema and Vinicius Jr.
“My body is definitely enjoying a little bit of rest,” he told liverpoolfc.com this week.
“After playing so many games, so many tense moments, I think getting a little knock was maybe a sign that my body needed to have a rest!
“I feel absolutely fine now and looking forward to, hopefully, a special evening.”
He insists he will not take nights like this for granted. He remembers those long, painful days in the gym, those months spent in Dubai working his way back to fitness. “I was in a bad place,” he admitted.
He won’t forget the misery of watching Liverpool’s title defence unravel without him, or the torment of missing the Netherlands’ Euro 2020 campaign. It hurt, but it makes what has happened since even sweeter.
“To win the Champions League [in 2019] was a dream come true,” he says. “And also to win it the year after we lost it [to Real in Kyiv] was special.
“But this year could feel maybe a little bit more special because it is only my comeback season. That’s how I feel it.”