Liverpool vs Napoli: Should Virgil van Dijk have been sent off for his challenge on Dries Mertens? - (2021)
Though Liverpool will have to wait until next week’s Champions League draw to find out who they will face in the Round of 16, they already know they will go into the first leg without Virgil van Dijk.
The Reds’ towering centre-back, without a doubt their standout performer of the season, was cautioned for a tackle on Dries Mertens in the first half of their 1-0 win against Napoli on Tuesday evening. As his third yellow card of the group stage, he will now be forced to sit out the first game of the knockouts.
While that might not seem particularly fortuitous, some felt that Van Dijk was lucky not to receive harsher punishment. The challenge on Mertens has sparked a heated debate, not least because BT Sport commentator – and former Liverpool man – Steve McManaman claimed on first viewing that it didn’t merit a caution or a free kick.
On second viewing, it’s hard to agree with McManaman. While, on the one hand, Van Dijk won the ball from Mertens, he also followed through with enough force to visibly jar Mertens’ ankle in wince-inducing fashion.
Liverpool fans May 2018: “That’s clear foul and a red card to Sergio Ramos for a disgusting tackle on Salah.”
Also Liverpool fans: “Van Dijk was on the ball first. How on earth was that a yellow card!?” pic.twitter.com/vBkAnhaAeI
— Real Talk Manchester City (@RealTalkMCFC) December 11, 2018
While some have claimed that Van Dijk couldn’t help the follow through and that Mertens’ momentum carried him into the challenge, that is not necessarily a defence in itself. The Laws of the Game state that, when considering whether to show a red card, a referee must consider whether a foul is “careless”, “reckless” or “using excessive force”, with the first option requiring no further action, the second requiring a booking and the third calling for a sending off.
That Van Dijk challenge on Mertens. Not sure that the 'but he got the ball first' line works on this occasion. Lucky to get away with a yellow.
— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) December 11, 2018
Referee Damir Skomina clearly decided the foul was reckless, but a case could certainly be made for Van Dijk having used excessive force. The Laws of the Game further define a player using excessive force as “in danger of injuring his opponent” and, seeing the way Mertens’ ankle bent after the tackle, an injury to the Napoli man hardly seemed outside the realms of possibility.
I honestly don't know how that is a foul. He can't stop the laws of physics and pause himself halfway through a legitimate slide tackle in which he's first to the ball by about 15 seconds.
— Empire of the Kop (@empireofthekop) December 11, 2018
That said, despite looking like he was in serious pain after the challenge, Mertens was able to continue and was only substituted in the 67th minute.
Ultimately, drawing the fine line between “reckless” and “using excessive force” is left to the referee’s discretion. Van Dijk may have been helped by the fact that he was clearly attempting to win the ball as opposed to make contact with his opponent, leaving the tackle open to interpretation.
Skomina saw the incident as reckless, which perhaps better reflects the unintentional nature of the follow through. Nonetheless, it was crunching contact and, on another night, it may not have been interpreted so leniently.
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