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The Merseyside derby, Mane, Thiago and Liverpool’s quadruple hopes – Dirk Kuyt exclusive

There isn’t even the slightest hesitation when Dirk Kuyt is tasked with recalling his favourite Merseyside derby.

“The one where I scored two penalties, with one deep into added time,” says the Anfield favourite, while bearing a blatant smirk.

“Somewhere in between I tried to kick somebody and thankfully didn’t get the red card…”

He is, of course, referring to the pulsating encounter at Goodison Park in 2007, where Liverpool were made to fight tiresomely to overturn an early one-goal deficit caused by Sami Hyypia’s own goal.

But thanks to two second-half penalties from Kuyt, Rafa Benitez’s Champions League-chasing Reds secured maximum points on their short, annual expedition across Stanley Park.

“That was such a special game for me, an away game as well, and to celebrate the winning goal in injury time with the away fans is something I will never forget,” Kuyt says.

From his six-year stay on Merseyside, the former Dutch international flaunts a rather impressive record against those based just a stone’s throw away from Anfield: seven wins, four draws and two losses.

And in the Premier League, his inaugural meeting with the Blues was the sole blemish on an otherwise perfect curriculum vitae, which underlines the clear gulf in class between the clubs over the last two decades.

That gulf could be extended further this Sunday afternoon, when the city of Liverpool comes to a standstill for the 240th Merseyside derby.

Even though Kuyt has only spent a small number of hours back in Liverpool prior to his exclusive chat with This is Anfield, he is able to distinguish the usual pre-derby symptoms currently bubbling around Merseyside.

“You can already feel it, even the week before,” he admits, speaking at an LFC Foundation event in association with SC Johnson.

“We are a couple of days before the derby game, and once I landed in Liverpool from Amsterdam this morning people were already talking about the game. It’s massive for the city.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 3, 2019: A blue an red front door of neighbours in a local street to the two stadiums of Everton and Liverpool pictured before the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 233rd Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. (Pic by Paul Greenwood/Propaganda)

“You’ve got families split, one is for Liverpool and one is for Everton. It’s just a great and really important game.

“Liverpool are playing so many ‘finals’ in three different competitions in the next month – this game is a competition of its own.

“I used to play, thankfully I won more than I lost, but for Liverpool and the city it’s very important Liverpool win again on Sunday.”

It’s fair to say the forward – who made more than 200 appearances for the Reds – has played his role in some of the continent’s fiercest rivalries, with his knack for important strikes in those fixtures earning him the honorary reputation as the man who relished the big occasion.

Of all his decisive strikes in red, it is his poacher’s hat-trick against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United back in 2011 that immediately springs to mind as the pick of the bunch.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 6, 2011: Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt celebrates scoring his hat-trick after scoring the third goal against Manchester United during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“I was used to playing these types of games in Holland, [with] Feyenoord and Ajax,” he replies when asked how long it took him to become accustomed to the high-tempered affairs as an overseas player.

“And when I came to Liverpool this along with Manchester United was one of the most important games of the season.

“I loved this type of game the most, when everyone is up for it. I was happy to score important and vital goals at home and away, they were such great moments.”

 

A new-age rivalry

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 10, 2022: Manchester City's manager Josep 'Pep' Guardiola (R) embraces Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp before the FA Premier League match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

For a man who scored in two of his three cup final appearances during his Anfield career – and also netted nine times collectively over his meetings with United and Everton – it’s fair to say he would have seamlessly slotted into Klopp’s current quadruple-chasing side, who find themselves facing at least nine ‘finals’ in their bid to make history between now and the end of May.

But in the meantime, the 41-year-old is happy to kick back and watch the high-stakes encounters from afar, just as he did for last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final clash with Man City.

“It’s just amazing how high level these games are [played],” says the Dutchman in a state of disbelief.

“I haven’t seen better games than Liverpool versus City this season.”

He’s right. Liverpool and City have served up three thrilling encounters so far this season, in a fixture that is frequently being touted as the greatest these shores have ever seen, despite what the traditionalists may argue.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 16, 2022: Liverpool's Ibrahima Konaté (R) celebrates after scoring the first goal during the FA Cup Semi-Final game between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Yet with both sides failing to land a killer blow in either of their Premier League meetings, it was Klopp’s men who landed the first substantial blow in the sem-final bout at Wembley last weekend.

And for all the external talk about the absence of a deep-rooted historical feud between the two sides situated on either side of M62, Kuyt is well-placed to discuss what the mentality the current Reds squad could take when facing opponents on multiple fronts, as he reminisces on the vicious feud with Chelsea during their set of classic Champions League encounters under Benitez.

“There are obviously changes if you play an opponent more than twice in a season, and that’s happening with Liverpool and Manchester City now,” he says.

“It’s very interesting because we have already seen two very good games; in my opinion City was the better team in the league game, but in the FA Cup semi-final, Liverpool showed what they are capable of.

“We have to see how they manage the potential next game.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FRIDAY, AUGUST 18th, 2006: Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez with new signing Netherland's striker Dirk Kuyt outside the reception at the club's Melwood Training Ground. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Somewhere in a parallel universe, Sunday’s Merseyside derby is being billed as Benitez’s first return to Anfield since 2018, but that potential reunion was erased from the diaries when his short-lived fling with the Blues was brought to an end back in January.

But for Kuyt, regardless of his former manager’s brief ties with the blue half of Merseyside, the Spaniard’s attention to detail during those intense clashes with Chelsea is what made him one of the greatest managers he had the pleasure of working under.

“Rafa was always the manager who was well prepared,” Kuyt recalls.

“He was always a man of small details as he knew it could make huge differences. He was a great manager for us and for me he is one of the best managers I have ever had, and one of the best in the history of Liverpool.”

 

Mane gets his recognition

Wembley: Sadio Mane celebrates scoring vs Man City, FA Cup semi final (Image: UK Sports Pics Ltd/Alamy Live News)

Sadio Mane was the man to grab the headlines in the capital last weekend when he fired twice past Pep Guardiola’s men.

Those two strikes captured not only his technical ability but the impeccable attitude and desire that still flows through him even at the age of 30.

And it is no wonder Kuyt is quick to single out the Senegal international as one of the key components to Liverpool’s late-season charge for immortality, as he will no doubt see flashes of his former self in the Reds’ current No. 10.

He, too, was often overlooked due to the other world-class talent he played alongside during his Anfield days – a predicament Mane has chosen to ignore in recent seasons, instead allowing his football to do his talking.

“It’s pretty amazing how Mane is managing the changes in the team,” explains Kuyt.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, April 10, 2022: Liverpool's Sadio Mané celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“He started on the right when he joined, then the left, and now Diaz is playing there he’s changed to the centre and he’s doing a great job.

“I think it’s the togetherness of the five attacking players, we also have Jota and Firmino, scoring as many goals and defending well together.

“I think this is Liverpool’s biggest strength – they probably have the best attack in the world.”

Kuyt added: “It’s important to keep your best players and I’m sure Liverpool will do the best they can to keep hold of these players.

“You are always looking to improve your squad but if you are Liverpool Football Club you are also trying to keep the best players, and for me, Mane is one of them.

“He’s scoring goals; such important goals. He’s very important for the team but also last week I saw him defending, tackling and sprinting back – and that’s how Jurgen loves his players.”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 13, 2009: Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt celebrates scoring the opening goal with team-mates captain Steven Gerrard MBE and Fernando Torres against Arsenal during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Photo by: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Kuyt is in good shape to talk about what the qualities of a strong forward department look like on the red half of Merseyside, given the fine relationships he formed with two of the most talented strikers to pull on the famous Liverpool shirt in Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres.

Only with Salomon Kalou, during the fledgling stages of his career at Feyenoord, did Kuyt enjoy a more productive partnership than the one he moulded with Torres – who he managed 18 joint goal-contributions with during their three-and-a-half seasons at Anfield.

It’s the same telepathic understanding of football he believes Luis Diaz has grasped with Salah, Mane, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota since his January move from Porto.

“You can speak the language of football, and when you speak that language it’s pretty easy to understand,” he says.

“I said before how important Diaz is for the team and how special it is that he coped so well since his arrival, new country, new culture, new team and a new coach. But’s he’s settling in so quickly.”

 

‘Thiago is the best midfielder out there’

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 16, 2022: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara celebrates with the supporters after the FA Cup Semi-Final game between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won 3-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

However, it’s not just in the final third where Klopp is being handed the luxury of being able to call upon some of Europe’s finest players, according to the Dutchman.

This is highlighted by the ever-increasing battle for places in midfield, which continues to heat up with each passing week.

And just days after Thiago‘s unbelievable showing against an old nemesis in Man United, Kuyt is keen to wax lyrical over the former Bayern Munich man.

The Spaniard acknowledged his much-deserved standing ovation as he departed the field 10 minutes from time on Tuesday, and it was a performance that he was always capable of producing despite his difficult start to life on Merseyside.

“I’m very happy for Thiago,” the 41-year-old Kuyt explains.

“In the beginning he needed time, which is normal, to adapt to the system, the team and his new players. But he’s playing such great football now.

“Before he came he was one of the best midfielders in the world for me, but now the level he is playing against top, top sides, performing week in, week out, for me he’s the best midfielder out there at the moment.”

Liverpool, England - Saturday, October 20, 2007: Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt celebrates scoring the equaliser from the penalty spot against Everton during the 206th Merseyside Derby match at Goodison Park. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It promises to be an exhilarating end to the season for Kuyt, and the millions of other Liverpool supporters worldwide, as Klopp’s men stand just 10 games from unprecedented glory.

It is a feat that would see their names etched into the Anfield history books for eternity, and a feat Kuyt believes his old club now possesses the squad to turn into reality.

“They have got the squad to do it. They have the players and manager to do it,” he says, fighting back a beaming grin.

“Small details will decide whether they win the quadruple, or just the Premier League or the Champions League.

“It will be amazing, and very well deserved, if Liverpool can achieve it all.”

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