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How has De Ligt gone from 'invincible' at Ajax to benched at Juventus?

09:00 SAST 2020/01/10
Matthijs de Ligt Ajax Juventus GFX
The Dutchman has struggled since arriving in Turin for €75m last summer and might be on the bench for a fifth consecutive game against Roma on Sunday

Ronald Koeman still has the newspaper clippings from the day after his Barcelona debut.

The Blaugrana were beaten 2-0 at Valladolid and the Catalan press were distinctly underwhelmed by the Dutch defender's display.

"It was a disaster," the Netherlands boss admitted last September. "Everybody was questioning my arrival. But if you ask the people at Barca about me now, I bet it's different!"

No arguments there. After a chastening start, Koeman went on to become a club legend. It's hardly surprising, then, that he believes Matthijs de Ligt can do likewise at Juventus.

Just like Koeman, De Ligt endured a debut to forget after leaving Ajax for one of Europe's most high-profile clubs.

The 20-year-old was criticised for the part he played in the concession of all of Juve's goals in their fortuitous 4-3 win over Napoli last August.

At the time, Koeman said he was unconcerned, arguing that De Ligt would need time to adjust and that he would only begin to worry if the centre-half hadn't begun to settle by October.

Unfortunately, it is now January and De Ligt's situation remains a topic of huge debate in Italy.

Second-placed Juve face Roma in a massive Serie A game at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday and even though club captain Giorgio Chiellini remains sidelined through injury, it is far from certain that Maurizio Sarri will start De Ligt.

The former Ajax skipper has started the Bianconeri's last four games in all competitions on the bench, having lost his place alongside Leonardo Bonucci at the heart of the defence to Merih Demiral.

Juve insist that De Ligt is not playing because he is carrying an injury but, after Monday's 4-0 win over Cagliari, legendary Italian coach Fabio Capello intimated that the club are merely trying to protect their €75 million (£68m/$84m) signing from any further scrutiny.

"Juve have some problems in defence," the European Cup winner told Sky Calcio Club. "They're conceding too many goals in every game.

"Indeed, Sarri has put Demiral in there in place of De Ligt. He's not fit? That's what they're saying... But Bonucci needs a player like Demiral more than one like De Ligt."

Certainly, De Ligt's acclimatisation hasn't been helped by the knee ligament tear that Chiellini suffered on August 30.

The plan had always been to introduce the Dutchman slowly into the first team, allowing to him gradually get to grips with the demands of the Italian game alongside one of the finest exponents of the defensive arts in world football.

Instead, Chiellini's injury thrust De Ligt into the spotlight, against Napoli, after he had been benched for the Serie A opener against Parma.

Things didn't go particularly well, with De Ligt conceding two penalties for handball in his next six Serie A appearances.

Scoring the winning goal in the Derby della Mole against Torino, in November, boosted his confidence, but his pace and positioning were again called into question after Juve slumped to a 3-1 loss to Lazio on December 15.

When the champions faced the free-scoring Biancocelesti again a week later, this time in the Supercoppa Italiana, De Ligt was had already been dropped and spent the entire game on the bench.

As it stands, he hasn't seen a second of game time since a 14-minute cameo against Udinese just under a month ago.

During that time, Demiral's stock has only risen. Several clubs had hoped to sign the Turkey international on loan once the winter window opened but there is no chance of that now, with the talented 21-year-old excelling in tandem with Bonucci.

Indeed, it would now be a surprise if Demiral doesn't hold on to his starting spot against Roma, even though Juve are well aware his continued inclusion would create more speculation surrounding De Ligt.

Only this week there was a report that Ajax were interested in asking Juve if they could take De Ligt back on loan for the remainder of the season. It was pure fantasy, of course.

According to Goal sources, Ajax are unwilling to put any obstacle in the way of Perr Schuurs' impressive development.

Besides, even if they were to make a move in January, it would be for an experienced defender like Jan Vertonghen. Even then, though, the Belgian's wages would be an issue, meaning De Ligt's return is out of the question.

In addition, Goal has been told that Juve haven't lost any faith in De Ligt whatsoever, believing he only needs to get himself back in peak physical condition to recover the form that saw him lead Ajax to a domestic double last season, as well as the semi-finals of the Champions League, knocking the Bianconeri out along the way.

Only last month, Fabio Paratici told Tuttosport, "De Ligt is a monster! A mon-ster! He's the best investment in a young player that we've ever made.

"It makes me smile to hear someone having doubts on him."

Of course, it must be acknowledged that De Ligt himself has been a little shaken by his Serie A experience thus far.

"At Ajax, I felt invincible, today it’s different,” he admitted to Fox Sports as far back as October.

"I don’t know myself why I’m not playing as well as I’d like. All I can do is continue to work, to do my best and to try to learn from my team-mates."

Bonucci & Co. still have the utmost faith in De Ligt too, with several players having privately told Paratici, "He's a phenomenon!" He certainly was at Ajax, and he should be in time at Juventus.

Up until now, De Ligt has spent more time speaking to the press than he would have liked, forced to dismiss Patrick Kluivert's claim that he regrets picking Juve over Barcelona, and rubbish reports that he had to be put on special carb-free diet to get himself in shape.

Crucially, Sarri remains "convinced" that De Ligt will become the best defender in the world but is, quite understandably, preaching patience.

"He comes from a much more open and less tactical league than ours, the kind where errors happen and nobody notices," the Juve coach told DAZN. "It’s only natural he’ll need a period of apprenticeship."

And maybe a slightly longer one than most people expected. But as even Capello pointed out, "Michel Platini struggled for six months [at Juve] before becoming Platini."

There is not yet any great cause for concern. He is still only 20 and is adapting to a new league in a new country.

Clearly, not much has gone according to plan so far but when De Ligt recovers from his niggling shoulder and thigh problems, he will be in a far better position to show why Paratici is adamant that the 20-year-old will "define an era".

De Ligt certainly shouldn't panic and instead simply focus on getting fit. In the interim, he should also maybe hold on to some negative newspaper clippings.

If he emulates Koeman and goes on to become a European Cup hero, they could actually be nice to look back on one day.