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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Liverpool's costly upgrades prove their worth in 'big step' win over Crystal Palace

A 2-0 win saw goals from James Milner and Sadio Mane, while Virgil van Dijk was a commanding presence in defence

The timing was telling. Exit the cut-price additions from the Bundesliga, displaced by the record-breakers.

Alisson, the £65 million (Dh306.3m) goalkeeper, made his second Liverpool appearance and kept a second clean sheet in the 2-0 win at Crystal Palace on the day news emerged that Loris Karius, the £4.7m man from Mainz who would have found a traumatic Uefa Champions League final inescapable at Anfield, was heading to Besiktas.

Virgil van Dijk was outstanding in Liverpool’s first game since the former Augsburg defender Ragnar Klavan completed his £2m move to Cagliari. Van Dijk commanded a rather higher fee, all £75m of it.

“Quality costs a specific price,” said Jurgen Klopp, a manager once defined by a capacity to get the best from rather cheaper players. “Cars are like that. Lots of things are like that. Players too.”

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Van Dijk’s dominance against Christian Benteke prompted thoughts of a predecessor, Martin Skrtel, who had a capacity to be bullied by physical strikers, the big Belgian included.

It was symbolic that the two moments of counter-attacking menace that allowed Liverpool to seal victory in London – first when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was sent off for fouling the escaping Mohamed Salah and then when Sadio Mane scored the second goal – both stemmed from Van Dijk winning crucial headers deep in his own half.

By the time the final whistle went at Selhurst Park, Liverpool had passed a thorough examination of their credentials.

“We know how difficult it is to come here, so to win and keep a clean sheet as well, I’m a very happy man,” Van Dijk told the club’s official website.

Their defensive improvement predates his arrival, but it accelerated with his purchase. His impact stretches to those around him and his partnership with Joe Gomez has the makings of a long-term alliance, even when Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are fit again.

Suddenly, Liverpool have the right sort of options, the better kind of statistics. Their record now stands at 22 goals conceded in 31 league games; perhaps it promises to get better again with Alisson.

It was notable that Klopp’s celebration, a punch of the air, was the same when James Milner put Liverpool ahead and when Alisson parried a Luka Milivojevic free kick that was creeping inside the far post. They were equally important.

It was not just Van Dijk who provided the sense that Klopp’s beloved "gegenpressing" is no longer Liverpool’s only way of transforming defence into attack quickly. Naby Keita’s first away appearance featured an instant where he darted away from Andros Townsend on the edge of his own box and then released Salah with a ball over the top. The Egyptian missed, although it was telling he could be such a threat when his radar was awry.

“Everybody loves Naby but we don’t know if he loves us because he doesn’t speak much,” said Klopp. If the midfielder’s exuberance is confined to the pitch, the same cannot be said of his manager. The early impressions are that Keita is another expensive upgrade who can make a difference.

Liverpool’s challenge is to ally brilliance with consistency. Klopp branded the win at Palace a “big step” precisely because they were not at their best throughout.

It was also significant simply because it did not occur at Anfield. Liverpool’s tally of 32 away points last season was respectable. It was also 18 fewer than the record 50 procured by Manchester City.

They drew at Watford, Newcastle, Everton and West Bromwich Albion and lost at Swansea. Such trends are not remedied in one game but, in many respects, winning at Palace represented an auspicious start.