LONDON • Had the coronavirus pandemic not occurred, Nathaniel Phillips would probably not be at Liverpool today.
Having impressed after half a season on loan at VfB Stuttgart last term, the German club wanted him back as he had helped them secure promotion to the Bundesliga.
Championship sides were just as interested in the bruising centre-back and Liverpool were willing to let him go in the summer, despite already offloading Dejan Lovren to Zenit Saint Petersburg.
However, the move never materialised as teams could not afford his asking price, with the Covid-19 crisis inflicting a financial toll.
Phillips, 23, was happy to stay even though he felt his chances of playing were remote – before Saturday, he had made only one FA Cup appearance for Liverpool.
But the Reds’ injury crisis at the back has opened the door for him and he is determined to prove he has the quality to play for the Premier League champions.
He already has the trust of manager Jurgen Klopp, hardly putting a foot wrong as the hosts beat West Ham 2-1 on Saturday, thanks to Mohamed Salah’s penalty and substitute Diogo Jota’s late strike.
The visitors took a shock first-half lead through Pablo Fornals, but that was down to a howler by Joe Gomez, Phillips’ more experienced defensive partner.
After impressing against David Moyes’ men, Klopp has no qualms about fielding him again in the absence of Fabinho, Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk.
On Phillips, who is into his third season at Anfield, the German told the BBC: “He’s a brilliant guy, a smart guy, intelligent.
“In the air, he’s a monster and he loves having challenges on the pitch. He was incredible for his first game. I’m pretty sure everybody can imagine how nervy that can be after a long wait.
Liverpool’s run of league matches without losing at Anfield, equalling a club record.
“It’s a crazy story. Three years ago, he was on his way to America to go to college. Then he came to our second team, then he trained with us and impressed us.
“In the summer, 12 Championship teams wanted him. It was clear he would go and I was fine with it at that moment but it didn’t work out. Good for us.”
Klopp also reserved praise for match winner Jota after the forward, who arrived on a £41 million (S$72.6 million) transfer from Wolves during the summer, scored for the third straight game.
“Diogo is in a good moment – and we’re really happy that we could make that signing,” he said.
Phillips was omitted from Liverpool’s Champions League squad, such was the expectation that he would be moving on in the summer, so he is not eligible to play in their Group D game at Italy’s Atalanta tomorrow.
However, with van Dijk a long-term absentee, Fabinho not set to return until after the upcoming international break and Matip questionable, the Englishman could be in line for Sunday’s league clash at Manchester City.
But Phillips is not overawed, saying: “It’s important I’m playing first-team football… I need to be pushing on.”