Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Messi vs Van Dijk: The battle for the Ballon d'Or

If Lionel Messi is Hercules, Virgil Van Dijk looms as his possible Achilles heel when the two face off in a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final that could decide this year's Ballon d'Or.

For the past five years, every Ballon d'Or winner has played in the European final and 2019 is looming as no exception.

While Messi is rightly a front-runner for the award, if Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk can find a way to silence the Barcelona star across two legs then the Reds defender will have put forward a convincing case for his own claim to the crown.

Not since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 has a defender been awarded the Ballon d'Or - with the Italian's win at the time helped massively by the role he played in the Azzurri's World Cup triumph.

But if Cannavaro was a rock for Italy's back line in Germany 13 years ago, Van Dijk has been a mountain for Liverpool's defence this season.

The 27-year-old has well and truly justified his mammoth transfer fee for the Reds over the past 12 months alone as he plays a pivotal part in their current fight for the Premier League title.

"If you pay the amount of money for a player that we paid, you have to be convinced, you need to be 100 per cent sure and we were sure," Jurgen Klopp told Sky Sports recently when asked about Van Dijk.

“He’s a different player to the one he was at Southampton.

"He was good there, really good, but with all the different games he’s played now, and being part of the Champions League quarter-final, semi-final, final, all that stuff, that all helps you as a player."

Though Klopp's attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have been crucial in the final third, it's been Van Dijk's defensive exploits that have kept them breathing down Manchester City's neck in the title race.

Thanks in large part to the Dutchman, whose cool head and imposing physique have made him a one-man wall at times, Liverpool boast the best defensive record in the league this season having conceded just 20 goals across 36 games- a far cry from the 42 they let in across their 2016/17 campaign prior to Van Dijk's arrival.

From his 89 per cent passing accuracy and three goals to committing just 12 fouls and being dispossessed once, Van Dijk has been near-faultless for the Reds this season.

While his work on the pitch has been impressive, former Reds defender Daniel Agger stressed Van Dijk's leadership has been just as crucial.

"He’s obviously a good footballer but he’s also a good character to have in a team, a strong character and a leader," Agger told Liverpool's website in March .

"All football teams need leaders, and if you lack them you won’t have the consistency that’s needed in the Premier League.

"So, it’s been impressive, and I’m definitely a big fan of his."

Having staked a solid claim for Ballon d'Or consideration based on his league form, which recently snared him the PFA Players' Player of the Year award, Van Dijk can go from long shot to strong candidate if he can keep Messi quiet when the two face off in the Champions League semi-finals.

The trouble is, as the defender concedes, the Argentine will be nearly impossible to stop by himself.

"I have no idea how we're going to stop him," Van Dijk said.

"I think he's the best player in the world but we'll see. It's going to be a great match-up for all of us. It's about doing it all together, it's never one-v-one, it's never just me against a particular striker.

"It's always us against everyone and I think that's the only way we can defend well."

Hunting for his sixth Ballon d'Or and his first since 2015, Messi has truly been unstoppable this season.

In both La Liga and the Champions League, the Barcelona magician's goals-to-game ratio is simply mesmerising.

From 34 league goals from just 32 La Liga appearances to 10 goals in eight Champions League matches - Messi has somehow reached another level in the final third this season.

The 31-year-old, who turns 32 in June, has shown no signs of slowing down with another Catalan great in awe of his form and declaring he deserves another Ballon d'Or.

“It’s impossible to describe Messi,” Rivaldo told Goal in April.

“He has been scoring goals, giving assists and been the top scorer in La Liga for a long time and I think what he has been doing in the Champions League means his merits should be recognised.
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“Even if he doesn’t win the Champions League, however, he already deserves the Ballon d’Or."

But if Messi was to stumble against Liverpool, Van Dijk could be the man to benefit - particularly if he plays a part in tripping the Barcelona star up and in turn leading Liverpool to consecutive Champions League finals.

A defender hasn't won the Ballon d'Or in over a decade, but if Van Dijk walks away from his battle with Messi unscathed, who can deny him his right to the crown?

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