In a fixture stepped in history, at a ground where legends watch not just from the stands but from the walls and the heavens, Liverpool’s latest hero stepped forward and put his mark on the occasion.
It was inevitable that all eyes would be on €80m man Virgil van Dijk from the moment it became clear, three hours before kick-off, that he was to be handed his debut in the kind of fixture that defines what it means to play for Liverpool FC; and what an impact he made.
It wasn’t just the weight of that record fee hanging around his neck as he touched that famous ‘This is Anfield’ sign, it was the weight of more than 50 years of history, of 18 league titles, seven FA Cups and five European Cups. The kind of weight which either buries you or defines you.
So when the Dutch rose to head home a winner and send Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup at the expense of their Merseyside rivals it’s fair to say he passed the test.
There are plenty of people willing to suggest the FA Cup has lost its lustre and that the dewy-eyed memories of days gone by are fading fast as Millennials and Generation Z struggle to come to terms with the prospect that football existed before the Premier League arrived in 1992.
But Everton-Liverpool is a fixture so steeped in history that it continues to shine, drawing even modern day fans to look back and admire the heroes of the past and wonder what it would have been like to be there.
For those of us who were, the lustre of the 1970s and 80s still glitters very brightly indeed, and so any mention of a Merseyside derby in the FA Cup comes with a burden of expectation which can be difficult to bear — even if you didn’t cost a world record fee for a defender.
The two FA Cup finals between the teams feature highly in any compendium of FA Cup glory days in an age when shorts were tight but heroes so recognisable they didn’t even need their names printed on the back of their old-school kit.
The first came in 1986 when Ian Rush scored twice in a 3-1 victory which gripped a nation; the second in 1989, just after Hillsborough, bringing with it extra emotion, unity and a dramatic 3-2 victory secured by the same striker.
A 4-4 draw in 1991, which proved to be Kenny Dalglish’s last game in charge, is remembered more fondly by Everton fans but the most recent episode saw Luis Suarez take Liverpool to the final with a
2-1 victory in the semi-final at Wembley in 2012.
All the talk at Anfield these days is that the current Liverpool ‘Fab Four’ of Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane are good enough to remembered one day in the same breath as Suarez, Dalglish, Rush, and Co — but the absence of Coutinho and Salah because of injury here meant the mantle had to be passed to others; and especially van Dijk.
The question before kick-off was could the Dutchman, whose path to Liverpool has been such a long one, grasp the opportunity ahead of him — or would he find the ghosts too much to deal with. So it says something about his character that he came through.
He started well enough with a confident first touch which earned a ripple of applause when he clipped a pass past Wayne Rooney to Joel Matip as Liverpool began the game with 86% possession and Anfield roared as loud as ever.
If he was ever under any illusions about the intensity of a Merseyside derby then the fracas which followed a tussle between Mason Holgate and Roberto Firmino soon put him right, too.
This is a player who has played in the hurly burly of the Scottish Premier League for Celtic, of course, so in reality there should have been no major concerns.
In the end it took a fortunate penalty, for a push by Holgate on Lallana, to ignite the night, and when the game became ragged in the second half van Dijk, although hardly a shining star, remained calm and assured.
Even when Everton produced a magical equaliser through Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Dutchman was just waiting to make his mark, which came from an 84th minute corner. Yes, Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, normally so reliable, should have done better. But the sight of van Dijk powering home will live with the Kop — and with FA Cup fans — for quite some time.
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