When rock and genius collide

Cristiano Ronaldo's (left) Portugal will clash with Virgil van Dijk's Netherlands for the inaugural Nations League title on June 9, 2019.
Cristiano Ronaldo's (left) Portugal will clash with Virgil van Dijk's Netherlands for the inaugural Nations League title on June 9, 2019.PHOTOS: REUTERS

Nations League final throws up tasty battle between solid van Dijk and lethal Ronaldo

PORTO • An unstoppable force will meet an immovable object when Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal clash with Virgil van Dijk's Netherlands for the inaugural Nations League title today.

While there is a rare international trophy at stake, just as fascinating will be the head-to-head battle between two of the finest players in the world - even if this is being played down on the Dutch side.

"We're not just playing against Cristiano Ronaldo," defender van Dijk said after Thursday's 3-1 extra-time semi-final win over England.

"We're playing against an amazing Portugal."

His coach Ronald Koeman agreed and said possession would be the best form of defence against Ronaldo at Porto's Dragao Stadium.

He said: "We know that, sometimes, it's impossible to defend well against Cristiano Ronaldo.

"The best thing we can do is to keep the ball because when we have the ball, he can do nothing in attack."

Van Dijk, who won the Champions League with Liverpool on June 1, was his usual impressive solid self against England, aware of where he needed to be before anyone else. He would arrive, unhurried, and the likes of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho and Harry Kane were duly dispossessed.

Statisticians Opta said no player has dribbled past van Dijk in his last 64 club games before the Nations League. Strong and quick, good in the air and relaxed on the ball, he is the complete defender.

"He deserves the Ballon d'Or," Koeman added.

Van Dijk himself played this down, citing Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi as favourite.

But it is not Messi but his great attacking rival, Ronaldo, that van Dijk will meet today.

Should Portugal retain their 4-4-2 formation from their 3-1 win over Switzerland, there is the mouthwatering prospect of the two matching up for 90 minutes.

Ronaldo, now 34, may not be quite as dominant as before but a magnificent hat-trick, his 53rd, against Switzerland took his side through to the final.

"A football genius" was coach Fernando Santos' view of his talisman while "little Messi" Bernardo Silva said: "We're used to this kind of thing, he's been doing it for ages. It isn't a surprise to anyone now."

The Portuguese media went to town with his return following a post-World Cup break, with the Correio da Manha newspaper declaring "The Return of the King" on its front page.

Captaining Portugal to a trophy at home would be another high point in Ronaldo's incredible career and would vanquish any lingering scars from the Euro 2004 final loss to Greece in Lisbon.

"It's the preparation, my work ethic. I still feel good despite being 34," Ronaldo told uefa.com. "The most important thing is your head, to feel motivated and happy, and to follow my path as a player, because I think I still have a lot to give."

DPA, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 09, 2019, with the headline 'When rock and genius collide'. Print Edition | Subscribe