Just give Virgil van Dijk the Ballon d'Or now
Virgil Van Dijk shrugged off the question as adeptly as he has shrugged off all the of the best forwards on display in English and European football this season.
Messi’s talent is beyond compare, an otherworldly level of ability bestowed on only one man in the history of the game. But Barcelona have had, by their standards at least, a poor season which will result in the coach being fired and wholesale changes being made. And Luka Modric demonstrated last season that achievement trumps ability on some occasions.
Who has had a better year than Van Dijk, the signing who, in conjunction with Alison, transformed Liverpool into title contenders. The centre-back who has helped his side record six clean sheets en route to winning an unlikely Champions League trophy. The captain who has brought the Dutch back to the forefront of international football and could lift the Nations League trophy next week as well.
And what they have is one of the greatest defensive units ever assembled in English football. A rival to the units assembled by George Graham and Sir Alex Ferguson. Could they legitimately make the claim, as Klopp can, that in four of the five defensive positions they had genuinely world class players? Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and Van Dijk are all surely in the top five players in their respective positions.
But even in the company of such excellence, Van Dijk stands apart. The official man of the match produced a monumental performance in Madrid to rival anything seen in this capital of football. Alert to every whiff of danger and dominant in all facets of his game, this was a defensive masterpiece. And when the remarkable stat emerged after the final whistle that Van Dijk has not been dribbled past in any of his last 64 matches for Liverpool, the incredible felt strangely credible.
David Moyes, Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate were among the luminaries who selected the man of the match. It was left to former Werder Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf to explain why they chose Van Dijk. He said: "Van Dijk showed outstanding leadership and was Liverpool's best defender. He made crucial interventions when needed and played with a cool head throughout." Harry Kane was barely a factor.
For all their attacking talent, Liverpool’s extraordinary performances this season - where they have collected 97 points without reward in the league, losing only one game, and now conquered Europe - are founded on that extraordinary defence. That is truly what sets them apart from what came before. And Van Dijk has played the biggest part.
So could a defender win the Ballon d’Or?
The category may soon have to be adapted if we are still considering full-backs like Alexander-Arnold and Robertson as defenders, rather than attacking/defensive hybrids who wreak havoc in the final third. Their influence is spread across vast swathes of the pitch. But in terms of achievement, Van Dijk has clearly been the most consequential and influential defender since Fabio Cannavaro’s imperious displays won the 2006 World Cup for Italy, and the Ballon d’Or for himself.
Van Dijk has just come the first defender to win the PFA Player of the Year award since John Terry in 2005 and only the second since 1993. Beyond Cannavaro, no pure centre-backs have ever won the most coveted individual prize in football, although Matthias Sammer, Lothar Matthäus and Franz Beckenbauer all engaged in defensive roles. Recognition of this kind of rare indeed.
But who can seriously say he doesn’t deserve it? The world’s best defender has had his best ever season and his club have reached levels never before scaled. In terms of their stunning domestic points tally and their European Cup, that is the reality of the situation, even if Manchester City ended up winning a clean sweep of domestic titles.
Just give this man the Ballon d’Or now. The chances are he’ll have sniffed it out already. Nothing gets past Virgil van Dijk.