Seconds after coming off at the end of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final second leg in Rome, it was put to Virgil van Dijk by a TV reporter that his team had been lucky to progress to today’s final in Kiev.
‘Who cares?’ was the defender’s reply. It was a fair response to what was an equally fair question.
Liverpool — in that harum-scarum game against Roma — had enjoyed some fortune. The fact Jurgen Klopp’s team are so devastating, but also so flawed, is what makes them irresistible to watch.
But Van Dijk’s response was appropriate because what matters now is not what lies behind but what lies ahead. A Champions League final against holders Real Madrid: It’s a shot at history and, over the course of the competition, nobody can justifiably argue Liverpool don’t deserve it.
‘I gave that response because it was an English journalist who said it,’ Van Dijk told Sportsmail. ‘I thought, “What do you want us to do? Go back out and do it all over again?” We had just reached the final and were so happy.
‘That was the only game in the whole competition we lost so, no, we have not been lucky. We are in the final and that is where we deserve to be. We are just looking forward to it now.’
The two days in early May that saw Real and Liverpool progress to tonight’s final were memorable for the drama and closeness of their games. Over the course of the ties, the best teams progressed but, equally, Real were hanging on against Bayern Munich just like Liverpool were in Rome 24 hours later.
Those games give rise to hopes of a classic final. It is hard to imagine tonight’s game being as ordinary as the one Liverpool won 1-0 in Paris against tonight’s opponents in 1981.
As a central defender, Van Dijk would take another boring game. He would dearly love a clean sheet. He referenced it on several occasions when we met to talk at Anfield earlier this week.
Nevertheless, the 26-year-old knows what could happen here. He knows another classic shoot-out may lie ahead and, if so, he is not sure Zinedine Zidane’s team will have the answers against a Liverpool side who have scored 40 times in the competition this season.
‘I don’t know how Real will play,’ he said. ‘I know how they usually play, but I don’t think they have ever played a team like Liverpool before.’
Asked to explain what he meant, Van Dijk added: ‘I mean exactly what you think I mean.
‘We play differently than the teams Real have played before and it is going to be interesting to see how they react. We know what they are about. They have quality in every position and experience of these games.
‘They’ve won it the last two years but we know that, so we can be ready. Everyone in red needs to be confident. We are not here for no reason. We have played some fantastic games already this season. We have shown we can beat anyone. It’s a one-off game and we will be ready to give everything. It will be very hard but I am looking forward to it.’
The first time Neil Lennon travelled to Holland to watch a young defender called Virgil van Dijk, he could not believe he was the only scout there.
The then Celtic manager recalled: ‘You’re watching and going, “Wow, is this boy available?”
‘You wonder if there must be something wrong with him. He must have one eye or something. Then you go and watch him and you see fantastic temperament, fantastic physique and all-round qualities. He was a Rolls-Royce. He could go through the gears when he wanted to. Technically unbelievable.
‘I thought there must be English Premier League scouts watching this guy, but in the end we got him for just over €2million. I couldn’t believe my luck.
‘On the first day when we got him into training, I said, “Look, enjoy yourself here, you’ll not be here long”.’
Celtic paid £2.6m for Van Dijk from Groningen in 2013 and he stayed two years. Four and a half years on, Liverpool shelled out £75m — a world record for a defender — to buy him from Southampton.
That is some inflation but Klopp will argue he has already been worth it and, if he becomes a Champions League winner tonight, that will end the debate.
Liverpool have improved since Van Dijk arrived in January, even if they are not yet perfect defensively.
‘In every team there are going to be moments of vulnerability,’ Van Dijk shrugged.
‘We have been doing incredible work at the back, but they were already decent and doing a good job before my arrival.
‘When things about the defence get in the media, it gets life and people grow on it. But our progress is all credit to everyone.
‘It’s not because I am here that everything is going well. Everyone is playing their part, it’s not just me. No chance.’
Van Dijk wanted to be a centre forward when he was a youngster growing up in Breda in southern Holland. His favourite player was the Brazilian Ronaldinho.
‘Scoring goals looks nicer and much more attractive than a last-ditch tackle for younger people,’ he said with a smile.
‘I just enjoyed watching players who enjoyed the game. I was always playing on the streets with my friends until I was 15 or 16 and I wanted to do things with my skills that were exciting. I still practise and hopefully it will come out one day.’
Converted to a defender by a coach at his first junior club Willem II, Van Dijk’s progress to the professional ranks was not always smooth. A growth spurt in his mid-teens gave him problems with his knees and groin, while he also spent time washing dishes in the kitchen of a restaurant to help life away from the football field.
‘I didn’t have a contract at that time. If you don’t have a contract you have to try to make money and work,’ he revealed.
‘I was 16. It was before I was picked up by Groningen. I wasn’t thinking I had no future in the game, but I also knew I had to work. But after my growth spurt everything became pretty good.
‘I needed to make a step to senior football and then Groningen came to my door and I made that step. I worked in the restaurant for maybe two years.
‘I was still thinking I was on the path to being a footballer, but I was working twice a week as a dish-washer for five hours a night. It was just for extra money, a few euros an hour. It was just me working and appreciating every bit of what I am doing now.’
Van Dijk knows why Liverpool paid so much money for him. They needed a defender who could defend. He buys into it fully, taking the No 4 shirt worn by the likes of Mark Lawrenson, Phil Thompson and Tommy Smith.
‘I know that is a big number to wear at Liverpool,’ he said. Van Dijk does take a mean free-kick though. He scored several at Celtic and there is footage of him practising the art rather well at Liverpool’s training ground.
But asked when he may be given a chance in competitive play, he said rather sternly: ‘I wanted to be more involved up front when I was younger. Scoring is obviously much more fun than being at the back. But I am happy a coach changed me when I was young.
Van Dijk: "I think from day one that the lads, the managers, the staff and the people have made me so welcome. That helps a lot. The results help as well. Liverpool is my team and Anfield is my home and I love playing for this club."
Watch live 👉 https://t.co/iSfSnFX1hR pic.twitter.com/hPlDcmrmh1
‘Free-kicks are not my main thing now. We have a lot of good players who can hit one. If you look at Trent (Alexander-Arnold), for example, he can hit one! But this is not my focus. As a defender I try to keep clean sheets.’
The day Van Dijk signed for Liverpool, he was paraded on the Anfield pitch, but did not see a young supporter asking for his autograph by the tunnel. He walked straight past him.
A couple of days later, young Rocco Daley received a signed shirt through the post. Van Dijk had seen video of the moment on YouTube and was bothered by it.
‘Everything was so busy that day,’ he recalled.
‘We walked across the pitch to leave and I was just like “tunnel vision… go”.
‘But then I saw some pictures later and I thought, “Woah...that isn’t good”.
‘So I arranged something for him. Yeah, it was my idea.
‘I asked the media guys to track him down and it worked, so I was happy to make his day.
‘I normally stop and sign for the kids. I love to do that because back in the day I was a boy looking up to players, so I knew how it felt. The video of him receiving the shirt is incredible and I met him at the Crystal Palace away game and asked him if he was OK. So it worked out well. He was one of the first kids to have my name on his shirt, so that was a good start!’
Van Dijk’s own upbringing was something he politely declined to discuss.
‘We can leave that question out now,’ he said, with a smile. ‘It’s not for now, not for this game.’
What is known is he does not have a close relationship with his father Ron, who split from Virgil’s mother Hellen when Van Dijk was young.
This is why the defender has his Christian name rather than ‘Van Dijk’ on the back of his shirt.
In Liverpool, Van Dijk lives with his wife, childhood sweetheart Rike, daughter Nila and their pet chihuahua. Protective of his privacy, he prays for ‘perfection, power and strength’ before each game and knows what victory tonight would mean to his new home city. ‘Liverpool belong in the Champions League for the club, the fans, the atmosphere, the way we play,’ he said. ‘But you still need to do it.
‘I won’t think too far ahead but if we can make history it would be amazing. If you look at the way all the players who have played for this club have been treated, it’s fantastic and it says a lot about the club and the people who work here. I am proud to play for this beautiful club.’
Tens of thousands of Liverpudlians will be in Kiev to see if Liverpool can record European Cup triumph No 6. It would put them third on the all-time list, led by tonight’s opponents.
Liverpool’s preparations have been sound. Victory over Brighton two weeks ago secured their place in next season’s Champions League and Klopp took the squad away for warm-weather work in Marbella. On that trip — as they often do at training camps — the players shared rooms. A very rare practice in the modern game, Klopp asks his men to draw lots to identify a room-mate.
‘I haven’t shared a room since I was in Holland, but it’s a great idea,’ nodded Van Dijk.
Tonight in Ukraine, it will be single rooms only as Van Dijk and his team-mates prepare for their shot at the title.
Asked about those periods in recent games when Liverpool have overwhelmed opponents with rapid-fire bursts of goals, Van Dijk is invited to agree that it may be the way to beat Real. His logic bubbles to the surface.
‘The way we press, there is always likely to be a moment when the opponent is not ready, so someone like Bobby (Firmino) may nick the ball off you or Sadio (Mane) or Mo (Salah). Or Hendo (Jordan Henderson) or Gini (Wijnaldum) will be there to bother you,’ he said.
‘That’s what tends to start it. Those moments will always come and it’s difficult for the opponent. If we could do that against Real, that would be unbelievable. But the most important thing then would be not to concede. That would spoil it, wouldn’t it?’