Van Dijk has chance to settle Ballon d'Or debate as new generation jostle for supremacy
Virgil van Dijk can take a massive step towards confirming his status as the world's finest defender by snuffing out Cristiano Ronaldo in the Nations League final – a contest that could easily be the Euro 2020 final, writes Marcus Foley.
When the concept of the Nations League was devised back in 2015 the authorities that be would never have thought that the culmination of a glorified friendly match would define who would win the Ballon d'Or. Yet, here, probably, we are.
Virgil van Dijk, the pretender who traipsed through the relative backwaters of Groningen, Celtic and Southampton to assume his post as Europe's best defender takes his stead in a one-off showdown against Europe's premier marksmen, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has somehow, against all perceived wisdom, retained the hunger to sustain near 17 years of barely credible brutal excellence; such excellence drew praise from his manager ahead of the final.
"Only a fantastic player can continue to play at this level. I give him another 3-4 years at least because he's determined in his objectives. It's not very common that a player reaches his level at 34 but I think he's going to continue for a while," said Fernando Santos.
The marketing team could barely have perceived a better ploy to flog the inaugural Nations League final. Yet, that misses the point: this final represents a battle between two emerging powers within Europe. Remove Van Dijk and Ronaldo from the equation, and the final pits two sets of players against each other who should be vying for European supremacy in the following years.
The Dutch have Frenkie de Jong patrolling and cajoling in central midfield areas while Matthijs de Ligt accosts and confronts behind him. Ronald Koeman was keen to point to De Ligt’s excellence in his pre-match press conference.
“We played in a friendly in Switzerland against Portugal, and [Matthijs] De Ligt was stopping [Cristiano] Ronaldo as well. It’s not just Virgil van Dijk who can stop Ronaldo. It’s De Ligt who can stop Ronaldo [as well],” said the Dutch boss in his pre-final press conference.
The Ajax pairing are potentially generational talents that operate within a framework put together that accentuates the players around them. Take for example Marten de Roon, an abject failure at Middlesbrough, facilitating De Jong's excellence in Koeman's emerging side.
Santos represents the conservative coaching methodology to Koeman's more liberal view, but his safety-first approach has softened recently, with João Felix's debut in their Nations League open against Switzerland testament to this. Alongside Felix and Bernardo Silva, Portugal's best hope of navigating the expected post-Ronaldo apocalypse stands Bruno Fernandes.
Of the three, though, it is Felix who potentially has the highest ceiling.
The Benfica man started up front alongside Ronaldo against Switzerland but, in truth, the 19-year-old is a number 10, which, by loose definition of position, pits him directly against the Barcelona-bound De Jong. Ronaldo and Van Dijk have garnered much of the pre-match hype and focus, but this tie could be settled by two of Europe's emerging talents.
A fitting end that two nascent talents exceeding all expectations could potentially decide a nascent tournament exceeding expectations. However, there is more at play here than who claims the honours in what remains a friendly tournament - both coaches know the impact that winning it could have on their teams.
For it is the intangibles in sport that can often prove crucial en route to the ultimate success of winning major international silverware. And momentum represents one of those intangibles. Van Dijk and Ronaldo will take centre stage ahead of the Nations League final on Sunday in their battle - with Lionel Messi - to be crowned the world's best, but that represents only a battle in a war that could carry either side to actual glory in the Euros a year from now.