Having bullied Arsenal’s hapless rearguard last weekend, Romelu Lukaku has Premier League defenders running scared. Among the teams capable of coping with the Belgian, Virgil van Dijk’s Liverpool are perhaps the best equipped.
Lukaku’s bullish display against the Gunners evoked so many memories, reminders of the early Abramovich era, of prime Didier Drogba and the numerous occasions the colossal Ivorian ran Arsene Wenger’s boys ragged.
As Rio Ferdinand so aptly put it, it was like watching “a sixth former playing against first years.”
It may have been just another feckless, tactically inept display by The Gunners, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the Belgian’s man of the match performance.
Nevertheless, expect no such naivety in Liverpool‘s approach. With the tactically astute Jurgen Klopp at the helm and van Dijk back at the heart of his defence, there are plenty of reasons to believe The Reds can cope.
The van Dijk Factor
Inevitably, the fanfare surrounding today’s clash has been mainly focused on the intriguing battle between van Dijk and Lukaku. The match up has been billed as a clash of two titans, with the Dutchman heralded as the chosen one by many mainstream pundits.
Unsurprisingly, Jamie Carragher named the Netherlands international “the one player in the Premier League who will fancy his chances against Lukaku.”
While Rio Ferdinand lauded van Dijk as “someone who can handle Lukaku physically, someone who will match him for pace, who’s cute and an intelligent defender.”
With van Dijk impressing in Liverpool’s opening fixtures (leading The Reds to consecutive clean sheets) it’s hard to argue with their assessments. Thus far there have been no signs of depreciation – it appears the Dutchman has simply picked up where he left off 10 months ago.
Jamie Carragher on Liverpool facing Chelsea next weekend:
“Liverpool are not going to change for Chelsea. Liverpool have got a defender who can cope with anybody one against one. He is the one player in the Premier League who will fancy his chances against Lukaku.” #awlive [sky] pic.twitter.com/SZUiqiwyca
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) August 23, 2021
This evening’s match will undoubtedly reveal any blemishes. This is van Dijk’s acid test.
On current form, facing Lukaku is the toughest examination a defender could undertake, let alone one recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Aggressive, pacey and robust – there’s so much to fear in Lukaku’s game.
That being said, this writer expect van Dijk to rise to the challenge. After such a long lay-off, the chance to pit himself against one of the best in the business, an opportunity to show us what we’ve been missing, will provide powerful motivation.
With his razor-sharp intuition and shrewd positional sense, it is easy to see van Dijk edging their individual battle.
If it wasn’t already patently apparent, Pablo Marí’s nightmarish afternoon against Chelsea last weekend established a ground rule for playing The Blues this season – don’t go 1v1 against Lukaku.
In this regard, van Dijk can call on a far more capable cast of supporting actors to aid him in battle – many of whom have enjoyed similarly encouraging starts to their seasons.
Van Dijk’s defensive partner, Joël Matip, was immense against Burnley last weekend. The Clarets provided a fitting test, with the combative Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes simulating a degree of Lukaku’s physical prowess. Matip was rock-solid throughout, winning an impressive eight out of his ten aerial duels.
Having faced the striker on numerous occasions across his five year tenure at Anfield, former Cameroon international Matip won’t be overawed by Lukaku.
When Man United met Liverpool in October 2017, it was the Lukaku vs Matip match up that the media hyped as the ‘key battle’. On that occasion – a drab 0-0 draw at Anfield – Matip marshalled Lukaku masterfully, with the Belgian failing to register a single effort on goal.
With the exception of a Harry Maguire-Rafael Varane partnership, Matip and van Dijk are perhaps the only defensive duo adequately equipped to handle Lukaku.
Just as Pablo Marí’s naive display taught defenders not to get too close to Lukaku, Granit Xhaka’s atrocious positional play illuminated the importance of the midfield screen.
Thinking of selfless Premier League midfielders, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho are certainly among the first names that come to mind. With the Brazilian a doubt for today’s game, the burden will fall on club captain Henderson to provide protection for van Dijk and Matip.
Henderson may have his detractors, but he’s an undeniably disciplined performer. His tireless endeavour and positional awareness will be key to cutting off Chelsea’s supply lines into Lukaku.
With early season bragging rights on the line, expect The Reds captain to lead by example.
Unhappy Hunting Ground
An intelligent, down to earth guy, Lukaku has projected an aura of calm and self confidence since he returned to the English top-flight. Having exorcised his old ghosts over two transformative seasons in Serie A, the 28-year-old now cuts a mature figure who isn’t easily phased.
In the lead up today’s game, much has been made of Lukaku’s poor goalscoring record against Liverpool. However, it is rather hard to justify the merits of analysing Lukaku’s first spell in England – especially in light of his evolution in Italy.
Romelu Lukaku’s shot against Liverpool was the first he has had in his last three Premier League games at Anfield.
223 minutes of football. pic.twitter.com/mLirJ6vxKo
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 14, 2017
More importantly, it seems entirely unlikely that the self-assured Lukaku would feel apprehensive about any opponent, or dwell on the shortcomings of his younger self.
However … if there are any remaining seeds of doubt in Lukaku’s mind – they were likely sown by Liverpool.
The record shows:
- The Belgian has faced The Reds 15 times in the PL, holding a dismal record of W3 D6 L6.
- After netting four times in his first four Premier League outings against Liverpool, Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer managed just one goal against The Reds in his next 11 attempts.
- In his last five outings against The Reds, The Belgian has faced the defensive combinations of Matip-van Dijk, Lovren-van Dijk duo (x2) and Matip-Lovren (x2), and failed to score on each occasion.
- Lukaku has played at Anfield eight times in total – losing five, drawing two and winning just once. His solitary triumph came while playing for West Brom, in a 2-0 win back in 2013.
— R.Lukaku Bolingoli9 (@RomeluLukaku9) February 11, 2020
Lukaku’s improvements to his all-round game have been rightly lauded upon his return to these shores and it’s hard to argue with the assertion that he will provide the missing piece of the puzzle in Chelsea’s quest to regain the Premier League title. Both history and common sense do though dictate that the former Everton and Man United man will be greeted by a much more hostile crowd and defensive unit at Anfield then he met at the Emirates last Sunday.
But, the flip-side of all this is if Big Rom and Chelsea come away from their trip to the north west having won both their individual and collective battles, then there is little hope for the rest of the league.