MAURICIO Pellegrino has urged Saints’ supporters to rally behind his players rather than jeer Virgil van Dijk on his return to St Mary’s with Liverpool on Sunday.

The Netherlands international left Saints under a cloud last month in a world record (for a defender) £75m switch to Anfield, having pushed for the exit door in the summer months during a protracted transfer stand-off.

Saints fans have previously lobbed taunts at Liverpool’s contingent of former St Mary’s men, especially centre-back Dejan Lovren, who left in bad blood back in 2014 in a £20m transfer.

“One group of people can be grateful for him and one people can say ‘boo’, but it’s not about this. Every single person has got an opinion and we have to respect that,” said Pellegrino about Van Dijk’s return with Liverpool in Sunday’s Premier League match.

“I think our fans are really respectful with ex-players and I prefer that our fans are focused on supporting our players and get behind us.

“Our players must be focused and give to our supporters with good feeling, attitude and energy to try to be 100 per cent on the pitch.”

Pellegrino, who has led his side on a six-game unbeaten run in all competitions, believes Saints should be thankful to Van Dijk, especially as the money brought by his departure led to the club’s capture of £19.2m striker Guido Carrillo from Monaco in January.

“I think we have to be grateful with him and now we have to think that Virgil is part of the past. He did well in our club and he left some profit to the club and we have to be grateful.

“But Virgil is part of the past and we have to focus on our game and what we have to do.”

Since Van Dijk, who joined Saints from Celtic in 2015 in a £13m deal, left for Merseyside, his old club have been beaten just once in eight games.

However, Pellegrino does not believe there is a link between the Dutchman leaving and their upturn in fortunes.

“I don’t think so. We’ve won, we’ve lost and drawn with Virgil and we’ve won, we’ve lost and we’ve drawn without Virgil,” he said.

“We cannot use this as an excuse and the evolution of the team has to be about the small situations.

“But the small situations are part of the context but we can’t use that as an excuse. It would be really easy for us to not take the responsibility and punish someone else.

“Sometimes it’s easy but we have to take our responsibility and, okay, when we don’t play well it’s about us, not about one player.”

Saints were defeated 3-0 by Liverpool at Anfield in November, with Mohamed Salah netting twice in a dominant display.

Although they were beaten by Swansea City recently, Jurgen Klopp’s side are third in the Premier League and are the second highest scorers in the top-flight.

Saints are in good form themselves, having ended their 12-game Premier League winless run against West Bromwich Albion last weekend, but Pellegrino admits his team have to be “perfect” to get anything from this game.

“It was an important game (the West Brom win) but we have to continue and now we have a massive game in front of us,” he said.

“Liverpool is a huge possibility for us but a really tough side. We want to learn and we want to improve from our experience away and we have to improve in different aspects in the way we play.

“Hopefully we feel at the end of the game that we are growing and we are continuing with this feeling.

“When you play against this side you have to do everything perfectly to try to beat a Champions League team like Liverpool.

“But, for us, I think we are in a good situation to try and play against them.”