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Who is Juventus-owned wonderkid Pol Lirola? Sassuolo’s Spanish right-back set for stardom


There were 59 minutes gone in Sassuolo's first ever Europa League group game when Pol Lirola picked up possession wide on the right flank, some 40 metres from the Athletic Bilbao goal.

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The Spaniard stepped inside one opponent, accelerated past another and then skipped around a third on his way into the penalty area before calmly opening up his body and coolly rolling the ball past the goalkeeper with his weaker left foot.

It was one hell of a way for a 19-year-old right-back to announce himself on the European stage but then, the continent's top scouts had long since been familiar with Lirola's prodigious talent.

Indeed, the Catalan had only just played his first competitive game with Espanyol's B team in the Segunda Division B when he emerged from the dressing room to find his agent in deep conversation with Juventus' chief scout.

"They told me that the Bianconeri wanted me and I had no doubts," he told the Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this month. Manchester City and Barcelona were also interested but Lirola had his heart set on a move to Turin.

"I chose Juve because I love Italian football," he explained. "It's the most complete and formative championship. I thought Juve would be the best place to grow and develop my value."

Lirola joined the Bianconeri in January 2015, initially on loan, but then completed a €500,000 permanent transfer to Turin that summer. He initially struggled to settle - but only off the field (he missed the Mediterranean!). On the field, he flourished. In 37 appearances for Juve's Primavera, he scored three times and racked up nine assists.

Unsurprisingly, Massimiliano Allegri took an immediate interest in the youngster's development, regularly inviting Lirola to train with the first team. "Every session is like a university lesson," the teenager enthused.

In that sense, Stephan Lichtsteiner was effectively Lirola's lecturer. "Lichtsteiner is my role model," he told Juve's TV channel earlier this year. "He's a great right-back. I always watch him in the defensive phase. I try to learn from him and I hope, one day, to be on his level."

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However, while Lirola was learning from Lichtsteiner, it was obvious that the former Espanyol starlet, who had started out as a winger, shared more similarities with then Barcelona right-back Dani Alves. Lirola was thus disappointed to see the Brazilian arrive at Juventus just after he'd departed on loan for Sassuolo.

“I grew up with the legend of [Philipp] Lahm, but I see more of myself in Dani Alves," he admitted. "It's a shame I couldn't train with him."

That is not to say that Lirola was in any way upset at having to leave Juve in search of first-team football. In Sassuolo, he has already found an arguably even more ideal environment in which to continue his footballing education and the perfect mentor in coach Eusebio Di Francesco.

"As soon as I arrived," Lirola revealed, "Di Francesco told me, 'I don't care about your age. If you're humble, willing to learn and you deserve to play, then you'll get a shirt.'"

Di Francesco was as good as his word, handing his new arrival a start in the second leg of Sassuolo's Europa League qualifier with Red Star Belgrade. Lirola vindicated his selection by providing the pass from which Domenico Berardi earned the Neroverdi a 1-1 draw that saw them progress to the group stage 4-1 on aggregate.

The first goal of his professional career arrived against Athletic and it was clear that Sassuolo had another very special talent on their hands. Di Francesco, though, was quick to quell the hype. "Lirola has impressive offensive potential but he must improve at the back," he told Sky Sport Italia immediately after the game in Reggio Emilia.

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However, it's already clear that Lirola is ready, willing and able to improve, which is an exciting prospect not only for Sassuolo but also Juventus.

“Knowing that my club considers me an investment for the future is something that fills me with pride," he admitted. "My objective is to develop [at Sassuolo] over two years so that I can be worthy of Juve. Playing for them is my dream."

The dream for Juve, meanwhile, is that in 2018 they could soon be in a position to replace the 'old' Dani Alves with 'the new Dani Alves'.