Liverpool took another step closer to landing an unprecedented quadruple on Tuesday after they defeated Villarreal to set up a Champions League final clash with Real Madrid.
With a Carabao Cup in the bag and a Premier League title race to go along with the FA Cup and European finals, many of the Reds’ playing contingent stand on the brink of footballing immortality.
However, former Liverpool striker Michael Owen believes defender Virgil van Dijk has already proven himself to be one of the greatest of all-time.
Michael Owen (right) has called Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk (left) the greatest defender ever
Speaking ahead of the Reds’ 3-2 win in Spain, Owen claimed he couldn’t identify any weaknesses in the Dutchman, who has been a key part of Jurgen Klopp’s defence since signing from Southampton at the start of 2018 for £75million.
‘I think he’s the best centre-half of all time,’ Owen told BT Sport. ‘He’s bigger than everyone, he’s faster than everyone, he’s stronger than everyone, he’s brilliant on the ball, he scores goals. I’ve never seen anything like it.
‘The only thing that goes against Van Dijk at the moment – and I stress, at the moment – is his winners’ medals. He’s only won one Premier League and one Champions League.’
But how does Van Dijk really compare against the masters of defence? Sportsmail looks at the 10 best ever centre backs…
10. Daniel Passarella
When you try to imagine the physical characteristics of the greatest defenders of all time you perhaps don’t expect a centre back standing at 5ft 8in to feature in a position where height is key.
But if there are any youngsters hoping to become the next defensive superstar (we all dreamt of becoming strikers didn’t we?) then Daniel Passarella is the inspiration that even a relative pint-sized star can climb to the very top.
He was captain of the Argentina team that won the 1978 World Cup and was lethal in front of goal too – finding the net over 150 times during his career.
You would think heading would be his weakness, but according to former international team-mate Diego Maradona he was best header of the ball of all time. Coming from a man who confuses his head from his hand though, we may take that one with a pinch of salt.
Daniel Passarella captained Argentina to their first World Cup glory back in 1978 on home soil
9. Marcel Desailly
To highlight just how good Marcel Desailly was it’s worth looking at where he ended his European career first.
Approaching 30 years old he moved to Chelsea in 1998 and over the next six years helped establish the Blues as one of the biggest teams in England, becoming captain and winning the FA Cup. Even now he is fondly remembered at Stamford Bridge and this was when he was already past his peak.
Desailly grabbed much bigger honours earlier in his career, winning the Champions League in consecutive years with Marseille and AC Milan – while also winning two Serie A titles with the latter in the early 1990s.
Of course, all those would be trumped in the summer of 1998 when he helped France lift the World Cup. His international centre back partner Laurent Blanc was asked to assess his team-mate’s abilities – he described him as ‘a monster! He is an absolute monster!’
Marcel Desailly still showed world-class ability even after dropping off his peak best at Chelsea
8. Ronald Koeman
Granted, he should have been sent off for bringing down David Platt in a pivotal USA ’94 qualifier… then ultimately cost Graham Taylor his job as England manager by scoring at the other end – but at least we got a legendary football documentary out of it.
But to remember the Holland defender for one infamous game in Rotterdam is an extremely harsh way to judge his overall career.
He was a key member of Barcelona’s 1992 European Cup-winning team – even scoring the only goal in the final with a thunderous blast at Wembley.
The Dutchman even won the trophy with PSV Eindhoven four years earlier, and so effective was the defender in front of goal he was joint top scorer of the Champions League in 1994 with eight strikes. Ahead of his time with his attacking ability as a ball-playing defender in an era when you couldn’t get away with being a bit lousy in defensive duties.
Ronald Koeman struck the winning goal against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final
7. Carles Puyol
You think of the great Barcelona teams from this century and the great names that spring to mind are the likes of Ronaldinho, Xavi, Andres Iniesta… and… um… oh yes, that Lionel Messi chap.
As good as Barcelona were going forward (and by ‘good’ I mean one of the best attacking teams of all time) it would have been largely useless had they been unable to stop conceding at the other end – even if seven-goal thrillers would have been fun every other week.
A big reason why they were also strong at the back is down to the talents of Spain’s World Cup winning star Carles Puyol – who also helped his country to Euro 2008 success, winning 100 caps in the process.
He also picked up three Champions League crowns with Barca, as well as six LaLiga titles. Former team-mate Xavi could probably bring him back into the defence now, at 44 years old, and he would still be good enough.
Prime Barcelona had rock solid defensive foundations with Spanish star Carles Puyol
6. Sergio Ramos
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but Sergio Ramos’ abilities as an elite defender have to be marvelled – and that includes the family friendly term ‘gamesmanship’ that is otherwise popularly known as a word that begins with ‘s’ and ends with ‘housery’.
The most infamous among those tactics of course coming in the 2018 Champions League final, when his innocent tangle (official story) with Mohamed Salah saw the forward tumble to the turf and injure his shoulder, forcing him out of a contest Real Madrid would go on to win 3-1.
Any defender can be just a wind-up merchant though. Ramos can play too, as you don’t spend 16 years at the Bernabeu winning four Champions League titles while also hoovering up a World Cup winner’s medal and two European Championship trophies with Spain without having something about you.
Sergio Ramos tangles with Mohamed Salah during the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv
5. Fabio Cannavaro
Just in case you were wondering if Passarella ‘got away with it’ by being a one off for his small size, then I present to you Exhibit B from the case for the defence (no pun intended) with Fabio Cannavaro.
It’s another World Cup-winning captain too with the 5ft 9in star, leading an Italy team who were looking shaky before the tournament to a surprising if not quite shocking success in Germany in 2006.
Cannavaro’s CV is one that can be envied by just about any player after starting out at Napoli in 1992 before joining the exciting Parma team of the 1990s and then moving on to Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.
There are other strong candidates that stand out for Italy but Alessandro Nesta’s ability to get injured at crucial points in his career and Paolo Maldini often featuring as a left back give Cannavaro the nod.
Fabio Cannavaro helped captain an unfancied Italy side to World Cup success in 2006
4. Virgil van Dijk
Close but no cigar, but that’s not to say we can laugh at Owen’s ‘greatest ever claim’. Van Dijk’s importance to one of the greatest Liverpool sides of all time cannot be underestimated.
It was before his arrival at Anfield where it seemed a slapstick defence were holding Liverpool back like an anchor attached to a 100m sprinter.
His impact was immediate and long lasting in helping build a watertight defence to compliment a deadly forward line that is now on the course of history. His injury last season that ruled him out for much of the campaign was partly the reason why the Reds struggled so badly to defend their Premier League crown.
The 30-year-old’s return to form this term is a huge reason why in May Liverpool are on the verge of the previously unthinkable trophy haul they are so close to achieving.
Van Dijk has been a key part of a Liverpool team on course to secure a historic quadruple
3. Franco Baresi
Cannavaro was good but even though he has the advantage of winning the World Cup as a captain for Italy, and not as a non-playing squad member from 1982, few will ever argue he was a cut above the great Franco Baresi.
The centre back spent two decades at AC Milan before ending his career in 1997, with the club going on to retire the No 6 shirt in his honour.
He won the Champions League three times, Serie A six times and was even a Ballon d’Or runner-up in 1989. Even at 5ft 9in, he was part of a defence that was rock solid and this is an era when Italy and Milan were still largely playing the defensive-minded catenaccio counter attack style.
And yet arguably his best ever performance might even also be one of the most soul-crushing displays of his career. Returning from injury to man-mark a prime Romario out of the 1994 World Cup final in a 0-0 draw he then missed a penalty in the shoot-out defeat by Brazil.
Franco Baresi starred for Italy in the ’94 World Cup final against Brazil in keeping a clean sheet
2. Bobby Moore
Pele knew perhaps better than anyone how to outfox a defence so it’s worth taking note of the legendary Brazil striker when he claims Bobby Moore was the best man-to-man defender of all time.
England’s only World Cup-winning captain is to this day still largely remembered as one of the country’s greatest ever players, with a statue outside of Wembley helping remind each new generation of English football fans of his importance and impact he had on the national team.
He was pretty good for West Ham too by the way, winning the FA Cup in 1964 and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup a year later. He was also a runner up in the 1970 Ballon d’Or.
No surprise really – against one of the finest teams ever to grace the football pitch in the Brazil 1970 World Cup winners, dig out some clips and watch some of his perfectly-timed tackles to make the likes of Pele and Jairzinho look like hopeless hungover strikers playing on Sunday morning at Hackney Marshes.
Bobby Moore is an England legend and a highly-respected star among the game’s greats
1. Franz Beckenbauer
We tried to put Moore at No 1 – we really did – but you have to hold your hands up sometimes and acknowledge that there may never be a defender as good as ‘Der Kaiser’.
Starting out as a midfielder, his skills on the ball made him even more lethal when he dropped into the defence, where coupled with his intelligence to read the game he became an imperious defender for Bayern Munich as well as West Germany.
He was the first player to lift the current World Cup trophy in 1974 and won the European Cup the same summer as well as in 1975 and 1976 – not forgetting his Ballon d’Or wins in 1972 and 1976.
Oh, and he was a total warrior too. In what is the known as the ‘game of the century’ in Italy’s 4-3 World Cup semi-final win over West Germany in 1970 he continued playing in a sling despite dislocating his shoulder earlier in the match.
Franz Beckenbauer was the first player to lift the current World Cup trophy back in 1974