Ronaldo’s battle with Van Dijk will add some intriguing spice to the Nations League final
On the only other occasion Cristiano Ronaldo has faced Virgil van Dijk in a competitive game, in last season’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, the Portuguese predictably did what all forwards do and concentrated his movement on the weaker defender. It was in this case Dejan Lovren. It’s a common tactic, of course, but impossible not to think it was accentuated because Van Dijk is an uncommonly good defender.
Ronaldo did what was intelligent, but his influence on the game was still affected, since he didn’t score. There was also another stat, that has since becoming something of a standard.
Ronaldo attempted five dribbles in that final and completed none of them. It was the most he’d tried in a game all season, which at least intimates he was getting frustrated, and needed the validation of victory. That’s the personality type he is.
It’s certain Ronaldo knows of the stat that no one has dribbled past Van Dijk all season, too, and the wonder now is whether he will try to personally rectify it – to get that big individual win.
There’s similarly more to it than that, just as their face-off means there’s more to the Nations League final between Portugal and the Netherlands.
Van Dijk and Dutch manager Ronald Koeman predictably looked to play that duel down on beating England 3-1 on Thursday. They both pointed to the fact it will be two teams – not individuals – playing on Sunday, and in pursuit of a trophy at that.
It’s still impossible to escape the fact it’s a secondary trophy, though, and that so much of the intrigue will be about how two of the best players in the world come up against each other.
Therein lies why there’s even more to this, as reflected by a question to Van Dijk after he finally won the Champions League with Liverpool last week.
The defender was asked whether this will give him a claim to the Ballon D’Or, which is of course the trophy that Ronaldo holds and is so obsessed with.
The question wouldn’t have been the only slight. There was also the answer.
“I think Messi is the best player in the world,” Van Dijk said. “I think he deserves it as long as he plays. So the Ballon D’Or is definitely something I’m not thinking of. But if it happens by any chance, then obviously I would take it, but I don’t think there is any case. He is still the best player in the world. It doesn’t matter if he’s not in the Champions League final.”
It’s not difficult to imagine Ronaldo seething at this, even if he couldn’t bring himself to watch a Champions League final he wasn’t involved in. This is after all a man who got irritated that Alfredo Di Stefano is still considered the greatest player in Madrid’s history over him, even though Di Stefano is cited as the sole reason for transforming that history, not to mention winning more European Cups there and far, far more Spanish leagues. It was even cited as a reason for Ronaldo’s departure, to Juventus.
He isn’t one to take a slight.
The wonder – and what could make this game a little more wondrous – is whether Ronaldo will thereby be intent on making Van Dijk rethink this; whether it’s time to show him what he’s really about.
That in itself might be why we might see the Portuguese repeatedly looking to claim the symbolic victory of finally dribbling past Van Dijk.
The sweeping run to utterly destroy Switzerland’s Manuel Akanji on Wednesday will have only fired him, even if it was itself something of a throwback. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anywhere near as much any more.
That is something else charging this game, and that made the question about the Ballon D’Or all the more loaded. While Ronaldo will obviously be always considered the greater player with the greater legacy, who is the greater player right now?
It’s genuinely difficult to tell.
Ronaldo’s physical powers are waning, to go with the fact he failed to get past the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in nine years, and what has been a controversial season with the rape lawsuit made against him.
It was almost metaphorical that on the day when that story came up again, that the case was now being pursued in a federal court, the Portuguese produced a performance that ensured everyone was – again – talking about his football.
It does feel somewhat incongruous to talk about one aspect of his career when this other aspect of his life hangs there.
The legal reality remains, however, that you can still only really discuss one, but not the other.
That high-quality hat-trick against Portugal was a reminder of what has made Ronaldo so famous in the first place.
But it was also something of a spike. He just hasn’t been doing that as much, either.
The reality there is he hasn’t been as consistent, or as influential as Van Dijk.
An Italian title with Juventus and an early Champions League knock-out – while scoring a good return of goals – was fairly standard for Gonzalo Higuain, let alone Ronaldo.
Van Dijk, though? He’s directly lifted Liverpool way above their level, to the greatest victory in club football; to the point that it’s genuinely difficult to think of a Premier League transfer since Eric Cantona that has had such an immediate and profound influence.
He instantly gave Liverpool the bedrock backline that has been such a key part of their season, that they have so often leant on.
It’s not just about influence, either. He’s performing on a level beyond any defender on the planet. He’s that good, that difficult to get beyond, that composed and imposing.
Perhaps some of this is down to the fact Van Dijk has become a more distinctive player than Ronaldo. The game is now so front-loaded, with so much coaching and talent based on attacking, that there are many top forwards, but not many top centre-backs. It’s a problem faced by all big clubs right now.
“On the basis of that and there are plenty of players and ways to score goals,” one source at a top European club says, “I’d probably go with Van Dijk over Ronaldo right now.”
Such undercurrents may mean Ronaldo really goes at Van Dijk. He does have a history of reducing such talk to rubble, and reproving his greatness time and time again.
It could well mean this final is charged for reasons beyond the Nations League, even if it is in both men’s characters to do their utmost to claim it. (© Independent News Service)