LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Football’s money-can’t-buy moments finally have a price it seems.
Late winners on Liverpool debuts are a rarity; in front of the Kop increasingly less so and against Everton, virtually impossible. For just £75 million, Virgil van Dijk mastered all three as his side ran out 2-1 winners in Friday’s FA Cup third round.
Countless heroes on either side of Stanley Park have been forced to wait far longer than the four days in which the game’s costliest defender was able to etch his name into derby folklore. And while Van Dijk may struggle to find comparisons between his price tag and the cut-price fee that brought Sami Hyypia to Anfield, his new side have finally found a commanding centre-back to assume the Finn’s mantle; one that puts the rest of their backline at ease while also capable of grabbing vital goals.
In a maiden outing, Van Dijk offered an overdue tribute to Hyypia’s legacy as an imposing presence at both ends at the field. He also became the first Reds player in over a century to both make his bow and open his account against their local rivals, with Bill White in 1901 previously the first – and last – to achieve the feat. The first instalment of the Dutch defender’s eight-figure fee has already been repaid in kind.
“It was a fairy-tale,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said post-match.
“There aren’t a lot of fairy tales anymore so something like that is quite special. It was a difficult decision to make to include him. The first plan was not to start him.
“Dejan [Lovren] and Ragnar [Klavan] played a lot of games in recent weeks so I changed my mind this morning.
“Obviously, it was a good idea in the end because he showed a lot of the good things we want him to show in the future.”
Over 46,000 home supporters and 8,000 Evertonians packed into Anfield for the 230th Merseyside derby, a match which would epitomise the FA Cup’s true spirit. Liverpool’s two clubs have now faced off 24 times – more than any other teams in the world’s most famous club cup competition. However, this year’s mantra that “nothing is certain” could not have been further from the truth. The hosts’ record of winning derbies where they have drawn first blood since 1992 remains unchanged, as does the Toffees’ wait for an end to a win-less run at their former stomping ground.
The late sucker-punch compounded what had already been a forgettable day for Everton. Before they had even kicked off at Anfield, the bad news had rolled in for Sam Allardyce’s side with confirmation of Ross Barkley’s defection to Chelsea. It triggered an understandable outpouring of anger from their supporters that had stood by him through thick and thin. Pledges of an unconditional love to his boyhood club and describing Goodison Park as “home” counted for little it seems.
“I don’t think [Barkley staying] was ever on the cards to be perfectly honest. I think we all knew what was going to happen,” Allardyce admitted post-match.
“The good thing for me is that it has happened on day one and we can move on and stop all the speculation. Ross Barkley is a Chelsea player and good luck to him.
“We’ve got to look at what we bring in and what we can improve the side with and try to move on and make as many league points as we possibly can between now and the end of the season.”
From thereon, things deteriorated with Mason Holgate’s manhandling of Adam Lallana allowing James Milner to wrong-foot goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from the penalty spot and provide a moment of catharsis for Liverpool fans aggrieved by their neighbours stealing a late point in December’s Premier League encounter through a contentious penalty conceded by Dejan Lovren. Red mist descended on Holgate as he shoved Roberto Firmino over on the touchline before heated words were exchanged between the pair.
Allardyce’s side also found themselves fall victim of further ill-timing, both on and off the pitch. Cenk Tosun’s arrival was announced just moments after both sets of players had trudged off for half time. The Besiktas striker would have been far better served leading the line than Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who was perennially second-best to Van Dijk and the rest of Liverpool’s defensive line.
A rush of blood also continued to get the better of Wayne Rooney; limiting his impact once more after he found himself cautioned with less than seven minutes of play for a sliding challenge on Joe Gomez. He continued to tread a fine line until spared the disciplinary tightrope by Ademola Lookman’s introduction shortly after the interval.
Yannick Bolasie’s track record against Liverpool saw him appear on the winning side in three of his previous five outings against them, twice at Anfield, but the winger’s lack of match fitness prevented him from finding a way past Van Dijk and Andy Robertson on the left-hand side of the hosts’ defence. Allardyce’s tactical aesthetics remain as difficult on the eye as his side previously were to beat. Only Gylfi Sigurdsson’s sweeping finish from a counter-attack to draw Everton level offered a brief glimpse of a more positive future.
Liverpool have their own problems, too, with Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona increasingly appearing at its endgame stage. Injury saw the Brazilian miss consecutive games but cynics will argue the timing of his absence from action since the January transfer window opened is more than coincidental.
Learning to cope without him has been an intermittent process, with the playmaker also failing to feature for Klopp’s side during the previous window. With Mohamed Salah returning to the fold from injury and Sadio Mane continuing to lead the line, he is unlikely to be sorely missed.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium.