The only place to start is his tackle. On one of those suitably dramatic Anfield European nights, there was always going to be a flashpoint and so it proved in the 14th minute.
As the ball ran across his body, Virgil van Dijk reacted quickly to stop Napoli launching an attack. He hurled himself towards Dries Mertens and, in a flash, the Belgian had been robbed of possession to trigger an eruption of noisy acclaim. This was the type of challenge the locals love to see.
But, almost immediately, the approval turned to derision. Referee Damir Skomina had blown his whistle and was about to wave a yellow card at the Liverpool defender as Mertens lay on the floor, writhing in agony and clutching his left leg.
The only place to start is Virgil van Dijk’s tackle on Dries Mertens in the 14th minute of clash
Van Dijk looked perplexed but Skomina was unmoved. A booking, to rule him out of Liverpool’s next European assignment, was the punishment but there was an argument to say a card the same colour as his jersey could have been brandished.
This challenge was not too dissimilar to the one that saw Everton’s Phil Jagielka sent-off after he cannoned into Wolves’ striker Diogo Jota on the opening day of the season. Certainly, other officials would have interpreted this differently to the Slovenian Skomina.
For a couple of moments after, Van Dijk seemed stunned. Then again, so did everybody else inside Anfield. Controversy has not followed the world’s most expensive defender since he joined Liverpool at a cost of £75million at the beginning of the year.
A booking, to rule him out of Liverpool’s next European assignment, was the punishment
A fee of that nature can never be called a bargain but there is no doubt whatsoever that investment Liverpool made in Van Dijk has been handsomely rewarded. They are a different team from the one that blitzed into the Champions League knockout stages 12 months ago and he is a prime reason.
On match day six in December 2017, Liverpool obliterated Spartak Moscow 7-0 with captain on the night Philippe Coutinho scoring three of the goals. A month later, he had joined Barcelona for £146million but the canny use of that money has enabled the team to progress.
Think about it: for the Coutinho money, they have brought in Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker (£64.6million) and still had some cash leftover. Coutinho, with his magical little faints and flicks, is missed but the team Jurgen Klopp sent into battle here is significantly more trustworthy.
Van Dijk was the conductor on Tuesday night, making his defensive cohorts move to his tune
Nobody epitomises the mental strength more than Van Dijk. The tackle on Mertens and the resulting kerfuffle apart, he was imperious, covering his ground with conviction and nerve giving Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne or Jose Callejon the slightest glimpse of an opening.
He was also the conductor, making his defensive cohorts move to his tune.
When the otherwise excellent Andrew Robertson switched off twice in first half stoppage time, Van Dijk turned to him and growled his disapproval, demanding that focus be maintained.
Every time you saw Van Dijk, he was in the right position – a foot here, a head there
The only time Napoli got beyond him, deep into injury time, they found Alisson equally immovable. His save from Arkadiusz Milik in injury time was breathtaking, the kind of intervention you forgot Liverpool goalkeepers could make. Van Dijk, not surprisingly, wrapped him in a bear hug of thanks.
Others wanted to do the same to Van Dijk. Every time you saw him, he was in the right position – a foot here, a head there. He reads the game so well that he rarely needs to make a sliding tackle, which is why it was such a surprise to him go to ground so early in that collision with Mertens.
But that was his only blemish and it was another reason why it showed Klopp was right to wait for his man. When Southampton first dug their heels in and refused to do business with Liverpool in June 2017, Klopp considered other targets, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly among them.
Koulibaly was one of Napoli’s better performers but he was not in Van Dijk’s class. There are suggestions Manchester United will bid for the Senegal international next month, with fees quoted of £90million-plus. If that is Koulibaly’s worth, how much Van Dijk?
If he went back on the market next month, the bidding would start north of £100million but the reality for Liverpool, is that Van Dijk is priceless. There can be no higher praise.
MARK CLATTENBURG’S VERDICT ON VAN DIJK’S TACKLE
A few years ago Virgil van Dijk’s tackle on Dries Mertens would have been seen as a great challenge but not any more.
Van Dijk won the ball but his follow-through was reckless, his studs and catching Mertens. A yellow card was the correct decision and Van Dijk will miss the first leg of their last-16 tie.