Van Dijk's final test: Shackle Ronaldo in Nations League
Ronald Koeman raised a smile before answering. A scenario had just been painted for him in which Holland were the inaugural winners of the Nations League, and his questioner wanted to know the implications.
‘We wouldn’t go crazy or anything like that,’ Koeman said. ‘It would just be a sign that we are moving in the right direction. Maybe there will be a nice glass of wine and then we go on holiday.’
This, clearly, would not be a victory to put Koeman’s group on a par with the side he played in that was crowned European champions in 1988.
There would, however, be implications for one of his biggest players if the Dutch can trump Portugal on their home soil.
Should Virgil van Dijk put the shackles on Cristiano Ronaldo, it would further enhance his prospects of winning the 2019 Ballon d’Or. The Liverpool defender has been magnificent over the past 12 months and another big performance in Porto this evening would make his case compelling.
In the last 25 years, the only defenders to win football’s biggest individual prize have been Matthias Sammer (1996) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006). Both were recognised after they had played significant roles for Germany and Italy when they were successful in major tournaments.
Van Dijk’s body of work this year has been remarkable — PFA Player of the Year in England, Man of the Match in the Champions League final — so that putting the blocks on Ronaldo would make the idea of him receiving the trophy in Paris in December even more credible.
‘Virgil has already had a good season trying to stop everyone,’ said Gini Wijnaldum, his Liverpool teammate. ‘It is not up to us decide if he wins the Ballon d’Or, but he is the best defender in the world. Over what he has done this season, he definitely deserves the Ballon d’Or.
‘We are happy we are playing against Ronaldo. He is one of best in the world and you want to test yourself against the best.
‘But it is not just up to Virgil to stop Ronaldo and it is not just him who we have to stop. We have got to stop their whole team.’
Liverpool will look to reward van Dijk’s progress by improving the terms of his contract in the coming months but, before then, there is another trophy up for grabs and Holland should not be underestimated. They were superb when beating England 3-1 in Guimares earlier this week and Portugal should hold no fears for them today.
‘Portugal has a great team, a mix of experience and young guys,’ Daley Blind, the Ajax captain, said.
‘They have shown that they have a collective way of approaching a match and making a goal out of nothing. This is a home game for them and they will have many fans, but it won’t be a problem,’ Blind said.
‘It’s not a concern that we play against Portugal. It is not just Ronaldo; everyone knows his quality and it is up to us to stop the attacks and stop their team. It is comfortable playing alongside Virgil and Matthijs de Ligt,’ he said, mentioning the highly rated young Ajax captain. ‘Mathijs a big talent and Virgil has been showing quality all season.
‘Our strength of the team is that our defence starts with our attackers — look at two of the goals we scored against England, when we were pressing high up the pitch. This is very important for us.
‘A win will give the team confidence. We can go down in history as the first winners.’
To do that, though, it will take all of their powers. Ronaldo was extraordinary in Portugal’s semi-final defeat of Switzerland, scoring the 53rd hat-trick of his career. The way he played was if he had decided that he was going to win the tournament on his own.
‘He has proved himself and he can continue to play at the top level for another three or four years,’ Fernando Santos, Portugal’s head coach, predicted. ‘He has all these objectives and is determined. He is very fit. He trains to the limit.
‘It is not normal to reach these performances but I think he will continue for a while. He is the captain. He is a hugely important player. I think he will continue to give people joy at a club and international level. He has special qualities.’
Mail on Sunday