The Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland share a lot in common; two nations dwarfed by larger neighbours, but with a reputation for laid-backness, niche but wholesome food and capital cities that are ripe for stag weekends.
Any football similarities between the pair would require you to squint harder, but they can be spotted.
While Ireland struggle to qualify for tournaments, with a game but limited generation firmly entrenched in Europe’s middleweight, the Dutch can’t complete a single stepover without being compared to their 1974 team.
Last night’s match in Amsterdam brought home the unwanted reality for each. A scrappy 1-0 win sent the Netherlands into next summer’s European Championship in nearby Germany, while Ireland’s numberwang hopes of reaching the play-offs ended in low-key fashion.
It was thin gruel for two proud sets of supporters, but the current austere Dutch side boasts one of the best defenders in its history. And Virgil van Dijk is ageing like the finest of wines.
After a bumpy spell at club level with Liverpool, with Van Dijk becoming worryingly Maguire-esque as he was turned inside out by opponents like a pair of old jeans, the centre-back has been in imperious form this season.
At his peak, Van Dijk would beat opponents in the tunnel with his sheer aura alone – one whiff of that immaculate scent while standing alongside a man made of marble was enough to make Premier League strikers turn into puddles of nervous sweat.
Even if his staunchest supporters wouldn’t argue that Van Dijk is still the same player before being scissor-kicked by Jordan Pickford in 2020, the 32-year-old retains the nose for danger that’d have Gene Hunt wiping a proud tear from his eye.
With the Netherlands leading through Wout Weghorst’s first-half goal, Ireland launched a raiding party in search of an unexpected equaliser.
While the force facing them wasn’t exactly fearsome, the Dutch team would’ve been wise to stub their herbal cigarettes out long before Van Dijk was forced to intervene.
Josh Cullen played a lovely one-two with Adam Idah, receiving the ball back via a swaggering flick, and opened his body in anticipation of sweeping the ball home.
As his team-mates stood wide-eyed, as if Cullen had just landed on the pitch from an alien planet, Van Dijk extended one of his tree-trunk legs and wiped the ball away from his opponent’s foot.
Unlike the metaphorical defeat inflicted by Van Dijk on numerous opponents in the Anfield tunnel, the strength of his tackle left Cullen in a crumpled heap like a pile of washing on a teenager’s bedroom floor.
Virgil Van Dijk is absolutely back to he’s best😳 pic.twitter.com/7vc1QQYjjl
— Sarah (@sarahhansenh) November 18, 2023
“I take some criticism seriously, but not all. I know very well when I play well and when I don’t. Last season was just mediocre, sometimes even bad,” Van Dijk told Dutch outlet Algemeen Dagblad when asked about his form last season.
“As a team we also struggled to find a good rhythm at Liverpool. The Nations League with the Dutch team was also not good.”
The 32-year-old suggested his drop-off last season may have been due to him not trusting his long injury lay-off, but he has claimed that is no longer on his mind.
“I have thought and talked about it [last season’s issues] a lot to be able to turn that around. That worked, I think. Things have been going very well again since the summer,” Van Dijk added.
“My injury was very serious, it is not surprising that you have to get to know your knee again, so to speak. But now I don’t notice it anymore. I haven’t had to change much in my way of playing, I have the feeling that I can do everything again.”
Judging by his lightening-quick reflexes on Saturday night, the one moment of world-class quality in a match of two middling teams, Van Dijk is back and better than ever.
By Michael Lee