Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk remains wary about the threat Lionel Messi poses when the Dutch go up against Argentina in Friday’s World Cup quarter-finals, even though he came out on the winning side the last time they met in club football.
Van Dijk called Messi the best player he had played against after his side Liverpool came back from a three-goal first-leg deficit to beat Barcelona on their way to winning the 2019 Champions League and has repeated the tribute in Qatar after the Dutch booked their last-eight spot.
“It is an honour to play against him,” said Van Dijk before deflecting any one-on-one comparisons ahead of the meeting at the Lusail Stadium.
“It is not me against him, or the Netherlands against him, but the Netherlands against Argentina.
“No one can do it on his own, we will have to come up with a good plan.”
That was certainly the case at the 2014 World Cup when Dutch coach Louis van Gaal had to prepare for the threat of Messi in the semi-final in Brazil, although they still ended on the losing side. What they learnt, however, was that defending against Messi is a collective task.
Then Messi had more of a playmaker role but had a centre back assigned to man-mark him, plus also received special attention from Daley Blind, who was playing in central midfield and successfully cut off much of the Argentine’s line of supply.
The South Americans won through though, progressing to the final following a penalty shootout after a goalless draw.
Blind is the only survivor in the Dutch team eight years on, but now plays as a left wingback while the 35-year-old Messi has a different wandering striker role in a new-look Argentina side.
Van Dijk will add his own lessons from 2019, when Messi had sucker punched Liverpool with two quick goals as Barcelona beat them 3-0 in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, although the first goal was a rebound and the second a sumptuous free kick.
Van Dijk and his team mates had the last laugh though, winning 4-0 at Anfield in the return and going on to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the final.
But Messi still left a strong impression on the Dutch centre back.
“The difficult thing about him is when we are attacking, he is chilling somewhere in a corner or something,” remembered Van Dijk.
“You have to be so very sharp in terms of defensive organisation. They always looked for him to try to make it difficult for us on the counter.”