Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino has called for patience surrounding the return of defender Virgil van Dijk, as the Holland international takes steps in his comeback following a high-profile summer.
The 26-year-old centre-back the subject of long-running speculation regarding his future at the St Mary's Stadium over the summer, with Liverpool hotly-tipped to land the former Celtic man during the recent transfer window.
The Breda-born ball-winner even submitted a transfer request into the Saints in the hope of forcing a move away from the south coast, but his attempts came to no avail after the club's hierarchy decision to stand strong on their no-selling mandate.
Since then Van Dijk has rejoined his teammates in training after being cast aside during the summer turmoil, and Pellegrino has been impressed with how the Dutchman has applied himself.
However, the Argentine manager has heeded caution around the defender's return, insisting he does not want to rush the 12-times capped international back into the fold too quickly.
"The only thing that Virgil needs - and the most important thing - is to play games", the 45-year-old boss told a pre-match news conference ahead of facing Stoke City this weekend in the Premier League, as reported by Goal.
"But we are in the moment that, when we decide, Virgil has to be ready. It will be difficult to see the best version of [him in the] first game as he needs time. Little by little, he's getting better.
"Every week, his timing is much better, his mobility is much better, his understanding is much better, he is physically fit, he is fresher – obviously, every single week, he will improve. We need to be patient. After this game we've got two weeks and we'll play a friendly in the middle. I'm happy with his attitude and I'm sure he'll be ready when he does come back."
Van Dijk made his on-field return with a cameo appearance during the Saints' 1-0 away win at Crystal Palace earlier this month, however sat out Southampton's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United last time out.
However, Pellegrino knows when his centre-back is fully fit again he will make a difference, and has even thrown in the possibility of re-instating the 26-year-old as the on-pitch captain one again.
"Virgil is still one of our captains", the Argentine added. "I'm not thinking about [changing] this. But, being captain, for me it's not a position, it's a decision. If you want to be captain, you have to deserve it."