As the season wore on and as Liverpool struggled through a defensive injury crisis over winter, an unexpected figure emerged. A tall, loping figure often looking rather out of place as he carried the ball up the pitch.
That figure was Joël Matip, who started the year fourth on the depth chart and has now played 19 of the last 22 matches and is by all accounts a lock to start with Virgil van Dijk in the Champions League final on Saturday.
“I always believed in myself,” Matip said when asked if he was worried by the lack of minutes earlier in the season. “Now I have the opportunity to play and I just try to use it. But we have a lot of quality in the team.
“It doesn’t matter who is coming in, they always want to show—and they have showed. It’s just a good team and it’s really nice to be part of this. It’s hard to compare to other parts of my career, but I really enjoy the time now.”
With Matip not seeing the pitch as often to start the season, it might have been easy for some to forget just how highly regarded he was by followers of German football when he arrived from Schalke in 2016.
The widespread belief was that, on the open market, the then 24-year-old Matip was a £35M player. Injuries and a settling in period, though, meant Liverpool fans didn’t see his best—or when they did, that it wasn’t for long.
He was, though, always a more than good enough player to start regularly for almost any top club. The only question was when his chance would come for Liverpool and if, when it did, he could put his injury struggles behind him.
For now, at least, it appears that he has. Having waited patiently and taken his chance when it came, Matip has more than earned his place in the biggest game on the club football calendar—and he wants to enjoy it.
“I just want to enjoy that I have the opportunity,” he added. “It’s the kind of game you want to play as a kid and now you are there. It would be stupid to make more pressure than it is. It doesn’t help.”