Football Features

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool greatness is within reach for the Champions League’s true ‘Cap’

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:53, 26 April 2019 | Updated: 19:04, 29 April 2019

The Champions League semi-finals are nearly upon us. We’re in the Endgame now.

Virgil van Dijk’s origins are humble and unassuming. While playing for Willem II’s youth academy, he used to work part-time as a dishwasher. He was initially a slow and short right-back but an 18cm growth spurt in one summer saw him moved to the middle of the pitch. That is when Groningen signed him up and began playing him that very same season.

“At 16, I was a slow right-back and not good enough to play centre-back.”
– Van Dijk, February 2019

Origin

A short young man with great ambitions suddenly gets really big and begins to fulfil those ambitions? Van Dijk didn’t need any secret formula, nor bombardment by vita-rays, but everything else there is pure Captain America. The young kid who just wants to do good things but needed to get swole suddenly got swole, and then started helping. Ditto Van Dijk.

Van Dijk was so impressive he earned a move to Scotland, where he played two seasons for arguably the nation’s greatest club, Celtic, and won the title on both occasions. Van Dijk’s stock was rising and a move to Southampton followed.

He settled into life in England straight away and became a titan at the back for Saints, so much so that Liverpool eventually brought him to Merseyside for a world-record fee (for a defender) of £75m.

It was a colossal outlay, but he proved to be a colossal addition. Van Dijk was not only excellent individually; he organised and shaped the Liverpool defence into a true unit good enough to make the Champions League final, albeit one they lost in part due to the contributions of a man considered by many to be football’s prime villain.

A True Hero

Captain America has always responded to adversity with a drive to right the wrongs as he sees them, and the current objective for Van Dijk is no different. Here is a defender who has enjoyed an almost video game-esque career development path, one which has seen him win titles lower down the pyramid, then prove himself in an elite league before getting a big move to a big club and somehow making that big club way better.

It’s fantasy stuff because it all worked out, but the rewards were only reaped through grit and effort. Nothing came easy. Sure, Steve Rogers went from a scrawny kid to a superhuman. But along the way, he overcame the out-of-time adversity of having outlived friends and family, to reckoning with being duped by Hydra, to handling robot armies to fighting with his teammate in order to defend his best friend.

Van Dijk’s struggles haven’t been as traumatic, but losing 6-1 in the Camp Nou with Celtic wasn’t too nice. And the previously mentioned growth spurt resulted in “so many problems,” according to the man himself. “I had knee problems, groin problems, and I had to take insoles. I had to have proper, proper rehab with physios and I was out for at least six weeks.”

And right now, Van Dijk finds himself bearing the brunt of another strain, as Liverpool have basically built their title challenge on his ability to marshal a back-line and make the Reds so good defensively that their high-powered attack can basically just do one or two great things to clinch the win. All of which is why it’s Van Dijk, and not any of their star forwards, who has been voted PFA Player of the Year.

And how often have the Avengers relied on Captain America in a similar manner? In Infinity War, who was the one man to which Doctor Strange and Iron Man were going to turn for help? Cap. Who was the man Bruce Banner did turn to for help? Cap. Who had the plan for how to stop Thanos? Cap. When it came down to it, who actually went toe-to-toe with Thanos and lasted more than a few seconds? Cap (Well, also Thor, but Cap didn’t have a magic Axe).

Think about this, then consider how often Van Dijk has transformed himself into a one-man wall for Liverpool and you’re gonna start scribbling masks over your Van Dijk Paninis.

Endgame

So what is Van Dijk’s endgame this season? Undoubtedly the continental double. Liverpool have only ever done this twice, the last time being in 1984.

“We are fighting with the best Liverpool ever, one of the best teams I’ve seen in my life.”
– Pep Guardiola.

How dearly they would love to move onto three, joint-second with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Winning either particular trophy calls for an extraordinary amount of energy and focus, but how could you prioritise?

The Champions League is such a glorious thing to win and confers upon you so much praise and love, whether or not either were actually earned. Liverpool came so close last year it would be so satisfying for them to return again. And while the Premier League is less glorious, it comes armed with the fact that the last time Liverpool won it, Van Dijk hadn’t even been born.

So a near 30-year title drought and a glorious cup could be dealt with in one season. There’s no way Van Dijk chooses one or the other. He will go for both.

In Europe, there is last season’s trauma against Real Madrid and the challenge of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona facing Van Dijk’s Liverpool side.

On the domestic front, the situation appears bleaker. History haunts them. Their rivals, the supernatural force that is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, have cleared their last great hurdle in winning their local derby and hold the all-important one-point advantage.

But as a certain Avenger says, “some people move on, but not us.”

And Van Dijk won’t walk alone. Like any good leader, he will draw from whatever shreds of hope Liverpool’s three-game run-in present. And he will have teammates with him who will all do whatever it takes to get the historic victory for the Reds. And whether or not Liverpool fail in their lofty objectives, one thing is for sure: they’ll do it together.

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