The Netherlands international may not have claimed football’s biggest individual honour, but he is firmly on course for a Premier League title
Maybe Lionel Messi was due a win over Liverpool.
The Barcelona star is the 2019 Ballon d’Or winner, his record-breaking sixth crown confirmed at a glittering ceremony in Paris on Monday evening.
Disappointment, then, for Virgil van Dijk, who had been many people’s favourite for the award. The Dutchman instead had to settle for second place, ahead of the great Cristiano Ronaldo in third.
That Van Dijk is even in such a list is testament to his remarkable form for club and country. Unlike Messi or Ronaldo, he was not destined for stardom from the word go. At 28, he has taken the long road to the top.
He becomes the first Liverpool player to feature in the top three since Fernando Torres in 2008, and the first centre-back since Fabio Cannavaro won the award in 2006. Defenders don’t tend to feature in lists such as these.
Van Dijk’s performances, though, have been hard to ignore. Classy, consistent and hugely influential, he has established himself among the elite. There is no better defender in the game right now.
His excellence has at least been recognised. He was named PFA Player of the Year by his Premier League peers back in April, while in August he picked up the Champions League Defender of the Season and UEFA Men’s Player of the Year awards. A month later he finished second, again to Messi, in the Best FIFA Football Awards in Milan.
It’s hard to argue. How could anybody say that Messi, as he carries an average Barcelona team on his back, is undeserving? The Argentine genius continues to defy belief, his quality undiminished despite his advancing years. At 32, he’s never been more vital to Barca.
Liverpool know all about his brilliance, having been on the receiving end at Camp Nou in the Champions League semi-final, first leg back in May. It took a superhuman effort from Van Dijk and Co. to turn that tie around in the most memorable fashion a week later. As Jurgen Klopp says, he’s the best player of his generation.
For Van Dijk there will be an acceptance. Footballers often claim they are not motivated by individual prizes, but don’t believe them. He would have thought he was in with a big chance after Liverpool’s European Cup success. “Maybe it’s time for a defender to win it,” he told Goal when asked about the Ballon d’Or last month.
Disappointed as he will be, though, his eyes are on greater prizes. Team prizes. He wants to be part of the first Liverpool side to win a league title in three decades, and to defend that Champions League crown too. As captain of the Netherlands, meanwhile, he sees Euro 2020 as a great opportunity to confirm their re-emergence as an international force.
For club and country, he remains vital. He’s the leader, the talker, the man team-mates look to for guidance and security. He’s Mr Consistent, a player whose qualities lift those around him. No player at Liverpool is more popular.
Never mind his defending, which is peerless, on Saturday he kept the Reds clear at the top of the Premier League with two goals against Brighton. It’s not only Messi and Ronaldo who can be match-winners.
“He is good, outstandingly good,” said Klopp afterwards. The Reds boss was the one who pushed for his signing from Southampton, and he has been rewarded handsomely since. At £75 million, Van Dijk stands as a bargain, a transfer as important as any in the club’s illustrious history.
Alas it was not enough to land him the most prestigious of individual prizes this time around, but not to worry. The Ballon d’Or can wait.
For Van Dijk, the best is yet to come.