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Van Dijk next? Five times injuries or suspensions changed the course of the PL title race

Virgil van Dijk’s potentially season-ending injury has handed Liverpool a major blow in their hopes of defending the Premier League title this season, the star requiring surgery after damaging knee ligaments in last weekend’s Merseyside Derby.

The Dutch defender is as irreplaceable as it gets when it comes to leading figures in Premier League sides, starring since moving to Liverpool two-and-a-half years ago and playing every single minute of their title-winning campaign last term.

His loss also leaves the Reds significantly short of depth at centre-back with the club now possessing just two senior centre-backs amongst their ranks, Van Dijk’s prolonged absence a huge concern and potentially a deciding factor in the destination of the title.

The champions are not the first team to have suffered following notable injuries or suspensions, however, and we’ve decided to look at some other infamous incidents that changed the course of the campaign.

Here are five times injuries or suspensions changed the course of the Premier League title race:

Eric Cantona (1994/95)

Amongst the most notable moments in the history of the Premier League, Eric Cantona’s inexplicable assault on a Crystal Palace supporter left the Manchester United star facing a lengthy suspension.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were the reigning champions and embroiled in a tight title race with big-spending Blackburn when they made the trip to face Crystal Palace in January 1995, sitting second in the division ahead of an unforgettable evening.

The clash itself proved frustrating for the title challengers with chances few and far between, whilst the home side’s defence – most notably Richard Shaw – proceeded to niggle away at Cantona, arguably the Premier League’s most influential player.

After a bruising battle, Cantona’s notorious temper flared up as he petulantly kicked out at Shaw in the second half, receiving a red card and heading towards the tunnel.

What followed was an unprecedented scene and amongst the most defining in English football history, an antagonised Cantona launching himself into the crowd after being subjected to abuse by a fan, throwing kicks and punches in the direction of the supporter before being restrained.

The result of the controversy was a huge suspension and 120 hours of community service, United’s talisman out for the remainder of the season after being banned for nine months.

United remained in the title race and lost just two fixtures following Cantona’s suspension, though ultimately fell short following a final day draw at West Ham, Blackburn pipping the Red Devils to the title by just a single point in a dramatic conclusion.

The absence of Cantona – the club’s leading scorer at the time of his suspension – undoubtedly proving a deciding factor in the destination of the title. While the Red Devils faithful would also be left to rue the absence of their iconic number 7 after losing in the FA Cup final to an unfancied Everton side.

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Roy Keane (1997/98)

The driving force behind the greatest Manchester United teams of the Premier League era, a long-term injury to Roy Keane proved hugely detrimental to the club’s hopes of winning the title during the 1997/98 season.

Keane was a force of nature at the peak of his powers and a fearsome leader under Sir Alex Ferguson, though his season was prematurely ended after sustaining a serious knee injury at Leeds in September, an incident widely remembered for the reaction of Alf-Inge Haaland which led to that tackle by Keane on the Norwegian four years later.

United lost the clash at Elland Road but recovered well to take the lead in the title race over the festive period, remaining top of the division until a late season wobble saw the club overhauled in mid-April.

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Ferguson’s side had possessed a 12-point lead over nearest challengers Arsenal at the end of February, only for costly dropped points against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle to allow the north London side to charge back into title contention.

A strong end to the season for the Gunners saw Arsene Wenger’s side pip United to the title by a single point, a difficult scenario to envisage had Keane – famed for the unrelenting standards he set of both himself and his teammates – been a part of United’s engine room.

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Eduardo (2007/08)

Arsenal were bidding to win a first league title in four years when their season was rocked by a devastating injury, summer signing Eduardo suffering a horrific leg break during a clash against Birmingham City in February 2008.

The Croatian international had made a positive start to life in England and had scored 12 goals in all competitions up until that point, but it was the severity of the injury – more so than the absence of the player – that had a negative impact on the league leaders.

Arsenal were five points clear at the top of the division before Martin Taylor’s challenge left Eduardo with a broken left fibula and dislocation of the left ankle, a tackle which left Arsene Wenger calling for a lifetime ban for the Birmingham defender before retracting his comments.

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The distressing scenes played their part in the Gunners conceding a 95th-minute equaliser at St Andrews and they proceeded to draw their next three fixtures in succession before defeat at Chelsea, a campaign that had delivered just one loss before late-February unravelling following Eduardo’s injury.

Arsenal finished the season in third and four points adrift of champions Manchester United, their stunning start ultimately counting for nothing at the season’s end.

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Kevin De Bruyne (2015/16)

Manchester City were right in the mix for the Premier League title during the 2015/16 season before marquee signing Kevin De Bruyne was sidelined for an extended spell, dropping from second to fourth and falling significantly adrift of the leaders after the Belgian suffered knee and ankle ligament damage.

De Bruyne was ruled out for just short of three months after sustaining the problem during a League Cup semi-final against Everton, the impact sorely felt as Manuel Pellegrini’s side stuttered in his absence.

City lost four of the seven league games that the midfielder missed and lost crucial ground on title rivals Tottenham and surprise leaders Leicester, Pellegrini’s side some 15 points adrift of the Foxes upon De Bruyne’s return to the side.

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The looming shadow of Pep Guardiola also played its part in Pellegrini’s side faltering but there is no disputing the sidelining of De Bruyne proved costly, the summer arrival from Wolfsburg finishing his debut season with seven goals and nine assists in just 22 league starts.

City possessed the strongest squad in the division and really should have lifted the title in an open season, eventually finishing fourth behind Leicester, Arsenal and Spurs.

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Aymeric Laporte (2019/20)

Van Dijk’s long-term injury has drew parallels to Aymeric Laporte’s extended spell on the treatment table last season, a factor many believe was crucial in Manchester City relinquishing the title.

City had set unprecedented standards over the previous two campaigns to win back-to-back titles with a combined points tally of 198, though the defence of their crown unravelled drastically following an early season knee injury to Laporte.

The Frenchman is widely regarded as City’s most dependable defender and had taken on increased significance following the departure of Vincent Kompany, his absence – coupled with the failure to replace their former skipper – leaving Pep Guardiola’s side vulnerable in defence.

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Midfielder Fernandinho was utilised as a makeshift defender for much of the campaign with options such as Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Eric Garcia failing to convince, City falling behind runaway leaders Liverpool and finishing 18 points adrift of the eventual champions.

Liverpool have now found themselves in a mirror image situation in losing their most important defensive figure from a squad lacking depth at centre-back, and will hope it is not an ominous sign that their title charge is set to stall.

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