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As they aim to maintain their advantage at the top of the Premier League, Chelsea have spent most of January looking to strengthen the squad available to Antonio Conte. The success of Marcos Alonso and the coach’s knowledge of Serie A has made Italy a likely place for more reinforcements, and it is unsurprising to learn that another defender remains a priority.
After names like Leonardo Bonucci, AS Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Alessio Romagnoli of AC Milan proved unobtainable, recent reports suggest attention has turned to Stefan de Vrij. The 24-year-old has been in superb form this season, putting his injury problems behind him and helping Lazio to climb up to fourth place in the table, now just five points behind leaders Juventus.
It had been widely expected that the former Feyenoord man would move to Manchester United in the summer of 2014. However, his decision to join the Rome-based club proved to be quite a coup after he had impressed many observers with his performances at the World Cup, a string of commanding displays crucial as the Netherlands reached the semi-finals.
Lazio had a deal in place before that however, a smart investment that saw them steal a march on their rivals for De Vrij’s signature. It offered him another step in a career which began with local side Ouderkerk before he was picked up by Feyenoord as a 10-year-old and rapidly progressed through their youth ranks.
Initially playing in midfield, the Rotterdam-based outfit eventually converted him into a versatile defender and then handing him his first professional contract in July 2009. A debut for the first team came in September of that same year, with De Vrij going on to make over 150 appearances for the Eredivisie side. His reliability, composure and ability to read the game brought many admiring glances, with a number of scouts filing impressive reports after watching him in action at De Kuip.
But it was Lazio who won out, rewarded immediately with the same superb performances De Vrij had delivered for club and country. Instantly improving what had been a porous backline, he helped the Biancocelesti battle for a Champions League berth. As the 2014-15 campaign concluded, they finished in third place – securing a place in the playoff round of UEFA’s elite competition – as well as reaching the Coppa Italia final.
De Vrij had been excellent, included by many in various Serie A team of the season reports. Yet Lazio would quickly be eliminated from Europe as Bayer Leverkusen ended their Champions League hopes, while a September injury for the Dutchman would prove devastating. Inexplicably cleared to play for the Netherlands, he would subsequently be ruled out for six months with a knee problem, failing to return before the end of the season.
By the time he was healthy again, coach Stefano Pioli — who is now leading Inter Milan's revival — had been replaced by Simone Inzaghi, but the young defender was just happy to be back in action. “When I came back to the pitch I was smiling all day, I couldn’t wait to wear this shirt again,” De Vrij told Sky Italia back in July. “I want to play in every match, I’ve missed being in the stadium a lot and it means so much to return.”
That joy was evident in his play. He weighed in with a crucial goal in a 1-1 draw with Chievo that set Lazio on their way, but it is at the other end of the field where the 6ft 3ins defender has most made his presence felt. Averaging two tackles, a team-high 2.8 interceptions and 3.7 clearances per game, he is the rock upon which the Aquile rear guard is unquestionably built.
In his 13 Serie A appearances, Lazio have kept five clean sheets yet have failed to record a single shutout in the eight games he has been absent from the line-up. He has also been comfortable in possession, making almost 40 passes per game and connecting with 86.2 percent of those attempts.
“We’re on the right track but we know there are big games to come against good teams and we must be prepared,” De Vrij told reporters last month. “We’re strong like we were two years ago, I have confidence that we can get back to Europe.”
If recent news about his future is to be believed, his own wait for moving around the continent may be much nearer than Lazio’s. According to Rome-based newspaper Il Tempo, De Vrij has emerged as a target for Bayern Munich and Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti seemingly mirroring Conte’s admiration of the Dutchman.
Calm and playing without errors, it is easy to see why. Both clubs could offer De Vrij a rapid increase on the €1.3million (£1.13million) he earns per season at Lazio, while there has been no discussion on a new contract. With his current deal set to expire in June 2018, the Serie A club may be forced to sell him sooner rather than later as they look to recoup the €6million handed to Feyenoord rather than lose him for free.