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Regardless of how Liverpool’s season finishes, it’s clear that Jürgen Klopp’s side have ascended to a higher level this campaign. The oft manic, no-holds barred approach of prior Liverpool teams has been replaced with the wily steel of this current crop of Reds.
The man who finds himself at the centre of this shift in footballing dynamic is Virgil van Dijk. Eyebrows were raised when Liverpool were forced to pay Southampton some £75m for the centre-back’s services in January of 2018, but less than eighteen months later and that price looks like a bargain. The Dutchman’s assured performances and all-round competence have been paramount in Liverpool’s title challenge and run to the Champions League semi-finals.
It is in that latter competition that van Dijk will face the latest test of his credentials as the frequently proclaimed best centre-half in world football. The Champions League has thrown up a mouthwatering semi-final tie between Liverpool and Barcelona, a place in the final in Madrid the tantalising reward for the victors of this clash of giants.
The tie offers up a chance to see football’s newest, shiniest world class defender face off against the human peak of attacking footballing talent in the shape of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. The Argentine has entered a higher plane of performance in recent months, every performance awash with feints and flicks, delicate finishes and pin-point free kicks. Messi tore Manchester United asunder in the second leg of their quarter-final clash, and will have his sights firmly set on his latest opponents from the north west of England.
It may seem overly simplistic to reduce Barcelona vs Liverpool to Messi vs van Dijk, but you feel that this particular personal duel will be key in the outcome of the tie. Here you have the prime example of the modern centre-half, a veritable giant of a defender, gliding along with the bold, lengthy stride of a mythical centaur, reading the game as though he has played it and studied it for decades, every interception and perfectly timed tackled a lesson in how to defend in 21st century football.
Up against him is, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest footballer of all-time; a man whose sheer unteachable talent makes him untouchable in the pantheon of attacking greats. To watch Messi in full flow is to fall in love with football all over again — the exactness of his passing, the slick manoeuvres that define his ability to sit the world’s best defenders on their backside, the laser like precision of his finishing. If Cristiano Ronaldo is the prime example of physical footballing excellence, Messi excels in his ability to seem a colossus despite his small stature.
These are the glorious match-ups that the Champions League gifts us. Europe’s premier football competition has perhaps played second-fiddle to the Premier League in England this season due to the compelling nature of the title race, and the blessing of being able to watch what are genuinely two of Europe’s greatest sides slog it out for domestic glory.
However, the Champions League can still not be matched in its ability to pit Europe’s finest head to head in old-school, hell for leather knockout football. Barcelona vs Liverpool, and Messi vs van Dijk, is the reason that famous old trophy is so coveted, because to win it is to prove a team’s legend status, to be set apart as Europe’s finest and bask in the thrill of vanquishing the elite.
That is the challenge facing Barcelona and Liverpool, and Messi and van Dijk — to prove themselves in this the toughest test both have faced in the Champions League thus far. Whichever side comes out on top will be considered favourites in the final against either Ajax or Tottenham Hotspur, and that is due to the reputation Barcelona and Liverpool have carved for themselves this season as prospective European greats, a reputation defined and inspired by their respective Argentine and Dutch talismans.
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