VVD’s Toughest Test
It’s been a helluva season for Virgil van Dijk. This is indisputable.
A simple measure of his dominance is highlighted by the fact in the entirety of the 2018/19 season thus far, not a single opponent has managed to successfully dribble past the dominant Dutchman. It, therefore, came as no great shock that he was voted PFA Player Of The Year by the very contemporaries that have failed miserably to get the better of him all season.
The rate of development of the Kop favourite has been spectacular. It was only five years ago that VVD last turned out against Messi and Co at Camp Nou, playing a part in Neil Lennon’s Celtic side that got pumped 6-1, courtesy of a Neymar hat-trick.
What's remarkable is that despite the scoreline, how much sterling work van Dijk got through against the world's finest forwards.
Sure, that was ultimately an atrocious day at the office for van Dijk and you might fear the scars of such a sustained battering could last a lifetime. But, given his obvious intelligence and immense capabilities, you can bank on the thoroughbred from Breda having learned heaps from such a harrowing experience.
When you combine this fluffy assertion of “intangible knowledge acquisition” with the more concrete assertion that being flanked by two genuinely world-class full-backs, as opposed to a part-time car salesman and a 38-year-old player-manager, you feel Liverpool have the best chance of any side in Europe of shutting down Barcelona’s feted attack.
No one wants to be a selling club. But unless you’re Real, Barca, Man City or PSG, it’s a grim reality of the modern game. The key, however, is to sell at the right time and for the right price.
Tonight, two of Liverpool’s own, Luis Suarez and Phillippe Coutinho, will bid to stick a dagger through the heart of their former club.
The pair were shipped out of Merseyside for a combined total of £217 million which, even by today’s standards, is a figure hard to compute. Cashing in big bucks, however, is pointless unless you spend it well – just ask Andre Villas-Boas.
Whilst selling Suarez and botching the subsequent restructure set Liverpool back several years – think big money on Markovic, Benteke, Moreno, Balotelli – the decision to sell Coutinho has been the catalyst for Liverpool to reach even greater heights under Klopp.
Despite the worldie Coutinho netted against Man United, just his 13th for the club, he’s flattered to deceive since arriving in Catalonia for €150, whilst the years are catching up with Suarez who’s netted just once in his last 20 Champions League appearances. Both will be desperate to put in a significant performance here.
Simply still at the very top of his game – a football freak. Whilst there are dozens of aspects you could analyse, the starkest improvement of his in later years is his ability from dead balls.
The first man since stats began to net 6+ free kicks in consecutive seasons, he’s on 13 since the start of last term, a ridiculous tally that adds another mind-bending element to his game.
Fouling him outside the box is now just as dangerous as letting him enter it.
There is a reason these Catalan Kings are so feared on these shores. It’s nowt to do with Suarez’s giant gnashers or the fact that this is the club that produced the seemingly extra-terrestrial Pep Guardiola. It is the cold hard facts, and one stat in particular, that makes usually heroic men shake uncontrollably, the fear unbearable.
In 42 home games against English opposition, the world’s longest campaigners for independence have been beaten just twice (both times by Liverpool). They have won a total of 28 matches and drawn 12. It’s a record to strike fear into the hearts of even European football’s biggest dogs.
What Goes Around
There is an old saying that goes: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” These were the wise old words uttered by esteemed philosopher, William Durant, whose links to football - let alone Liverpool – are slightly tenuous. Durant was American and hailed from the same state as Liverpool state-side cousins, the Boston Red Sox.
Regardless, Klopp and his charges would do well to remember the club’s prestige. The fact is they have met Barca in European semi-finals twice before. Both times they progressed to the final having kept a clean sheet in Catalunya and twice they then lifted the trophy.
The chaperons to manage these feats were none other than Bill Shankly (1971) and Gerard Houlier (2001) 30 years later, both in the now Europa League. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see Klopp haul himself into the category of these two giants of the club.
Power Of Two
History is again on the cards and it’s yet more evidence that Klopp’s band of brothers are well on their way to the top. Should Sadio Mane add to his four European goals scored so far this campaign, he would join the venerable Mo Salah on reaching 25 goals this term. It would be the first time ever that in consecutive seasons, two Liverpool stars have reached a quarter of a century in the same season.
Last year, the Egyptian magician and Bobby Firmino managed the feat, with the Brazilian reaching the milestone in the semi-final first leg thanks to a brace against Roma. A repeat by the Senegalese would surely send his side to another UCL Final.
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