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Sampdoria and Japan defender Maya Yoshida said he always knew former teammate Virgil van Dijk would go on to become one of the best in the world.

Yoshida's seven-and-a-half-year stint with Southampton is set to expire this summer but the Japan captain, now on loan in Serie A, figured in the Saints' most successful period this decade.

Southampton finished as high as 6th in the Premier League in 2015-16 and reached the final of the League Cup the following season. Those two campaigns featured Yoshida in the heart of defence alongside Van Dijk, who has since become a vital member of Liverpool.

When asked during an exclusive interview with ESPN if he could tell that Van Dijk would go on to success, Yoshida deadpanned with a single-word answer: "Yes."

The pair first crossed paths in the Dutch Eredivisie when Yoshida was at his first European club VVV-Venlo, while Van Dijk was coming through at Groningen.

"I knew him since he was at Groningen in Holland," Yoshida said. "He was already big and physically fit but technically still lacking or in concentration sometimes.

"When I met him again in Southampton, he was already a very good player. Everyone recognised that he would be one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League and that we would move to a bigger club."

Yoshida shared a memory that best illustrated Van Dijk's natural ability.

"Sometimes, I'm jealous because after training I go to the gym every day and we can see [through] the window the parking area -- he's the first one to go home," he recalled.

"He doesn't need to the gym or to have a lot of recovery.

"He's naturally very strong, he's faster than anyone else, technically very good and has leadership."

ESPN