Tuesday 15 October 2019

Painful lesson for Van Dijk after Barca's predators thrive in their natural habitat

Virgil van Dijk. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea
Virgil van Dijk. Photo: REUTERS/Albert Gea

Simon Hughes

A short walk from the Palau Reial metro station through Les Corts involves the negotiation of a concrete realm. Beneath brooding apartment blocks are disused car parks where migrants, on non-match days, play cricket using traffic cones and tennis balls.

Further downhill is a grey bowl of a sporting venue which does not look like it can hold nearly 100,000 people. From the outside, only a third of the Camp Nou is visible and you wonder what all of the fuss is about.

Barcelona, though, is one of those cities where much happens on shadowy side streets and alleyways.

The Camp Nou digs deep into the earth, creating an improbable vast space which can only be appreciated when past its heaving iron gates and into its centre. A football Garden of Eden, a paradise you know is there but is better because it does not give indication of it coming, unless - of course - you already know about the history of the place.

Liverpool as a club knew. It remembered its last visit when Rafael Benitez played Alvaro Arbeloa at left-back because he wanted to cut out the diagonal runs of Lionel Messi. Benitez picked him because he was right-footed and foremost, a good defender. It worked. Liverpool in its current form knew less. Jurgen Klopp had never coached a team here. James Milner had come with Manchester City, losing narrowly twice and there was no shame in that. Alisson Becker had played as had Virgil van Dijk, though separately; for AS Roma last season and Celtic years before - conceding ten between them.

Though that can happen as well, it felt remarkable that none of those goals were scored by Messi. He played against Roma but not against Celtic when he was injured. It meant this was Van Dijk's first experience of trying to stop the world's greatest player in the habitat where he feels most at ease. Klopp had been enthusiastic about Liverpool's chances, saying Barcelona had never faced a side like his. Yet that meant Liverpool had also not faced Barcelona, a team which has Messi.

There was a moment in the first half where he decided it was possible to start an attack from the right-back position. He came at speed, flicking past Milner then Andy Robertson, slipping into Liverpool's half. Only a foul could stop him. Van Dijk was in the middle distance, pre-occupied by another element of the Camp Nou that Liverpool knew all about. That element was Luis Suarez.

His presence meant Messi versus the world's most expensive defender became one of those contests that symbolised what was happening but not in the way you might expect.

Messi instead tried to play on Joel Matip and this meant he was afforded wider freedoms, though Matip delivered a fair performance.

Suarez, meanwhile, buzzed around Van Dijk like a dragon fly in the mood to sting anything that came near him. He remains a bloody menace, just as much of a nuisance as he always has been. In the first half alone, he tried to get Milner booked and argued with Alisson. It was the sort of dialogue which suggested he was willing to sort it out afterwards in one of those car parks near to the ground. Suarez was irritating Van Dijk, who remonstrated with the Dutch referee after the Uruguayan chopped into Milner.

One of the reasons why Van Dijk was not picked up sooner by a club that meets his standard relates to danger and the way he was not always able to smell it quickly enough. The scouts that watched him play for Groningen thought he switched off. He is much better now but he saw Suarez move to meet Jordi Alba's cross when it was 0-0. In a flash, Barcelona had a lead.

On chances, Liverpool should not have been behind at the break. Theirs was not a performance that merited a 3-0 defeat. Yet Liverpool have meted out similar lashings on opponents who have come at them, like they did at Barcelona.

In the knockout stages of the Champions League, they know about the value of the away goal because they have knocked out two teams who failed to score at Anfield despite forcing the clear opportunities they created here. They know how that affects the chances of progression.

Even with the glory of Messi's second-half free-kick, the sense of relief inside the Camp Nou when Mohamed Salah's shot clanked against the post with ten minutes remaining was enormous. Salah had started the game fabulously.

He had tenderised Clement Lenglet who he was on a booking. Yet the Frenchman was untroubled in the second half, even though Liverpool's players streamed forward.

The final act of the night was met with curious reactions. Ousmane Dembele should have extended Barcelona's lead to four and that, it is fair to say, would have been that for this tie. His effort, though, was terrible and it left Messi beating the floor in frustration.

Somewhere in the midst was Van Dijk, clenching a fist. It was the tiniest of victories for Liverpool.

Independent News Service

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