Virgil van Dijk can only get better, warns former team-mate Steven Davis
Steven Davis always felt his former Southampton team-mate Virgil van Dijk was destined for stardom and believes the Dutch skipper is an artist of the defensive craft.
Davis and Van Dijk played at Southampton together for three years between 2015-2018 and became good pals before the 6ft 4ins Breda-born centre back moved on to Liverpool and captured the Champions League along with a number of personal gongs including UEFA's top player and FIFA's greatest defender.
Northern Ireland skipper Davis will be putting friendship to one side tonight as he attempts, along with his team-mates, to find a way past Van Dijk and inspire his country to an incredible result to keep alive their Euro 2020 qualifying aspirations.
Problem is, Davis believes Van Dijk is the ultimate defender.
"It's going to be formidable to try to get past him. He is very clever in his defending and is very strong with his physical attributes as well," concedes 34-year-old Davis, who will make his 114th appearance in Rotterdam, making him the UK's fifth most capped outfield player.
"I am not sure I have seen too many weaknesses having trained with him," he adds.
"You obviously see the way he defends, he has the physical attributes to out-run most people and he is very strong as well, he tends to put the onus back on the attacking player and makes them make decisions and you rarely see him going to ground, if ever.
"He always stands up, that is why he is a clever defender. Usually it is the attacking player who makes the wrong decision and he reads the game well. He is a top player and I can only see him getting better."
Davis enjoyed training alongside Van Dijk at Southampton, after the big defender moved down from Celtic four years ago.
When asked last night if Van Dijk was an artist, he said: "Yeah, I think so. The annoying thing is the game seems to be so easy for him. Whenever I was playing with him everyone seemed to be working hard and everything came so easily for him."
Van Dijk isn't the only Southampton connection at the De Kuip stadium tonight for Davis as he will also come up against his old boss Ronald Koeman - now in charge of the Dutch.
The Cullybackey lad played for two years under Koeman (2014-2016). But with Koeman excelling in the St Mary's hotseat it alerted Everton who snapped up the former Dutch defender in 2016 - much to the disappointment of Davis.
"I have a lot of respect for Ronald. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with him and my game improved and progressed. It was an enjoyable period for me," admits Davis. "I was disappointed to see him leave."
Davis' focus though will not be on old friends but on making sure Northern Ireland secure at least the point they need to remain in the Euro 2020 qualification places.
The men in green will be cheered on by 3500 members of the Green and White army and Davis says their support will be a huge factor inside the impressive 48,000 capacity arena.
Davis adds: "The backing we get is unbelievable home and away.
"That pushes us on and is a big part of any success we have.
"I knew that they would be looking forward to this trip and hopefully we can put in a performance that makes them happy."