Sunday, 9 June 2019

Van Dijk vs Ronaldo: What happens when the best defender meets the best striker?

The two opposing captains face off on Sunday night in the first ever UEFA Nations League final with Ronaldo coming off the back of a 53rd hat-trick

The last that most casual fans saw of Cristiano Ronaldo during the club season was for Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals against Ajax. He scored in both legs, which ahead of the UEFA Nations League final against the Netherlands will give Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind in particular cause for concern.

Ronaldo showed on both evenings that even in a malfunctioning team he is capable of deciding outcomes. Juventus failed in the Champions League this year and as a result there will be big changes in Turin this summer, starting with the coach.

Ronaldo was the only player to score for them in the knockout rounds; he followed up his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid in the last 16 with a goal in each leg against the Dutch champions. It wasn’t enough. He carried more than his fair share for the Italians and was let down by what was going on around him.

He doesn’t need time, he doesn’t need space, he doesn’t need five chances. He needs barely a chink of light.

The 34-year-old, according to one coach who prepared a team against one of Ronaldo’s, is actually straightforward to plan for in general play. A defensive line knows where he is going to be, whether he’s going to stand in the front line or drop off to the wings or further back, and can keep him in their sights. It’s in in the breakdown that he becomes unmarkable.

And his hat-trick goals against Switzerland on Wednesday night in the Nations League semi-final demonstrated that. The first is a great free-kick which he won himself and despatched. But in the analysis of the second and third goals you can see the danger which faces the Netherlands tonight.

Portugal built a sweeping back-to-front goal for Ronaldo to go ahead with only a couple of minutes remaining. Minute one or minute 89, Ronaldo is alert to the possibility of chances. The ball from Ruben Neves to Bernardo Silva puts Switzerland on the back foot and the Manchester City man then conjures a successful pull-back.

But the pull-back is only successful because it is Ronaldo meeting it. Look again at the movement to evade Manuel Akanji at the edge of the box. If you’re wondering why Akanji is not close by the time Ronaldo shoots at goal, well, the devil is in the detail. He only needs a split second to strike in a move like this, and rarely fluffs it. In a team that goes slow – slow – fast in the creation of chances, he is lethal.


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