Virgil van Dijk crushed Lautaro with just a stare… now we know he’s back

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk during their win over Internazionale in Milan, Italy, February 2022.

An aura is one of the most elusive, yet powerful, sensations known to man.

The dictionary definition speaks of “the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place” but most of us would have a hard time summarising such an abstract concept with words alone.

Instead, it’s something we instinctively feel. Like standing in front of the Taj Mahal, meeting the Queen or – if you’re of school-going age in the Manchester area – sharing the same oxygen as Cristiano Ronaldo’s son.

But, in the footballing stratosphere, the term ‘aura’ hits differently when used to describe defenders. Usually reserved for men with the stature of oak trees, it conjures images of quivering forwards who need a change of shorts after an ill-advised glance across the tunnel.

Which brings us nicely to Virgil van Dijk.

Despite building a solid reputation at Celtic and Southampton, it was something of a surprise when Liverpool paid £75million to sign Van Dijk in January 2018 – after all, this was a defender who hadn’t been tested at the ‘highest level’.

But, as you’d expect from somebody who’s continental and bespectacled, Jurgen Klopp showed impeccable judgement. After leaking more than a bullet-ridden bath, Van Dijk instantly shored up Liverpool’s backline with his leadership and sheer competence.

Winners’ medals in the Premier League and Champions League soon followed. Van Dijk became widely regarded as the best defender in world football.

Then came Goodison in October 2020. After suffering a season-ending injury at the hands of Jordan Pickford, who’d clearly necked too much Sunny Delight before kick-off, Liverpool’s title defence was effectively over.

The side that had dominated the 2019-20 season just about scraped a Champions League place. The Netherlands flopped at the European Championships. Some observers said that Van Dijk would never be the same player again.

Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport, the outspoken Paolo Di Canio said: “Liverpool have some small cracks in the armour that can be exploited.

“The Liverpool of two years ago had an impenetrable defence, as Virgil van Dijk had improved everyone around him.

“Since returning from injury, he’s not the same player and therefore the whole team concedes more.”

But the 30-year-old has spent the campaign demonstrating why such doomsday mongering always felt premature.

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Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk

READ: 13 of the best stats from Virgil van Dijk’s first four years at Liverpool

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“Definitely, definitely, you can see it in all movements and everything,” Klopp said when asked about Van Dijk’s recovery from anterior cruciate ligament surgery to his left knee. “We were always convinced that it would happen.

“He is completely back on track, he is absolutely at his best again.

“I would say it’s good timing because the decisive part of the season is coming up now. Long may it continue.”

And his imperious performance at San Siro against Internazionale demonstrated why Klopp is one of the leading managers of his generation while Di Canio remains something of a ketchup-hating outsider.

As one counter-attack broke down and Inter charged forward at speed, Liverpool looked in danger of being hoisted by their own petard. Hakan Calhanoglu tore at the empty space towards the Liverpool box and laid the ball off to Lautaro Martinez.

It looked like a golden opportunity to open the scoring until, with a flush normally reserved for a teenager asking their crush to the prom, Lautaro remembered just who he was up against.

Using his reputation alone, Van Dijk stood off the Inter attacker and dared him into a confrontation. While Martinez lacked cojones, he didn’t lack brains. The Argentina international stalled, looking for an alternative to certain defeat against Van Dijk.

But the Liverpool defender had already won the battle. Andy Robertson whisked the ball away with a well-timed intervention and the moment had passed.

Van Dijk had succeeded using nothing but his aura.

Liverpool needed Van Dijk on Wednesday night. Despite being considered warm favourites to progress, the Premier League side struggled to contain Internazionale for large periods of the match.

Edin Dzeko belied his age with a committed performance up front, Ivan Perisic rampaged down the left and Arturo Vidal dominated central midfield.

But, with their Dutch mountain manning the defence, Liverpool kept up the illusion of control and secured a 2-0 victory. Just about.

After picking up a deserved man-of-the-match award, Van Dijk’s victory over Lautaro was hailed as a masterclass of defending by Rio Ferdinand.

Speaking on BT Sport, Ferdinand said: “This is about respect, earning respect over the years.

“You see van Dijk here, he is saying one vs one, the only place you [Martinez] are going to go, I’m going to show you down there [away from goal].

“And if you choose to go down there, I’ll beat you for pace, I’ll bully you for strength.”

Ferdinand was spot on. It wasn’t the first time an opposition forward has been cowed by Van Dijk’s sheer presence but it was the clearest example of how Van Dijk has returned to his imperious best following last year’s horrific injury.

Liverpool are currently chasing silverware in four separate competitions. With Van Dijk marshalling their defence, it’d be a huge surprise if they ended this season trophyless.

By Michael Lee

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