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Who is Attila Szalai? Thiago Silva-loving Chelsea transfer target dubbed 'the Hungarian Van Dijk'

08:00 GMT 09/12/2021
Attila Szalai Hungary 2021
It was claimed that the Fenerbache star's move to Stamford Bridge was a "done deal" in recent days, so what kind of player could the Blues be getting?

If Attila Szalai does indeed join Chelsea, as has been claimed and then counter-claimed in recent days, the Hungary centre-back would fulfill a lifelong dream.

Thiago Silva has always been Szalai's favourite player and role model, mainly because he is a diehard AC Milan fan.

And now he could be about to join the Brazil legend at Stamford Bridge, earning the opportunity to learn from the veteran personally before likely inheriting his position.

For now, it remains unclear quite whether the Blues are keen on signing Szalai or not.

On Monday, Hungary manager Marco Rossi said, "apparently his move to Chelsea is a done deal" when speaking about the 23-year-old - a suggestion that was rejected 24 hours late by Szalai's current club, Fenerbahce.

Regardless, the defender being linked with elite European clubs is a fine illustration of what has been a meteoric rise for a player who described a move to Apollon Limassol as a "major step forward" in his career just a little over two years ago.

Now, Szalai is considered a superb prospect, having represented his country at Euro 2020 with some aplomb and cemented his place as the hero of Fenerbahce fans.

Rossi definitely holds Szalai in very high regard, and the defender did not miss a minute in Hungary's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

"He should be one of the best central defenders in Europe in a couple of years," Rossi recently told Inside Football, and it is quite easy to see why.

Generally positioned on the left of a back three for Hungary, Szalai looks a good fit for Chelsea's favoured 3-4-2-1 system under Thomas Tuchel. Left footed, he often played as a left-back in his youth, but feels more comfortable in central defence due to his lack of game-changing pace.

Instead, Szalai's best qualities include positional awareness, a magnificent reading of the game, discipline, physical strength and a very good passing range. Robust and uncompromising, he is a fair player who does not tend to concede fouls or pick up cards, having only been sent off once in his entire career.

"I like many things about him. He is very good at closing his opponents, very good at reading the game and in defensive duels. He is a complete player," Rossi added.

It is hardly surprising that Szalai is described by his coaches as an extremely serious and dedicated youngster who is always willing to learn, largely because he grew up in a footballing family. His father, Attila Szalai Sr., also a defender, won two championship titles in Hungary and won a pair of caps for his country in 1987.

Quite naturally, he has always been Attila's most important coach and mentor, and even served as his son's nutritionist and psychologist.

"We had to work a lot on coordination of movements, improved speed and endurance, and did a lot of exercises without the ball, in addition to constantly polishing technique," Szalai Sr. recalled.

The family were not afraid to take gambles, either. When Szalai was spotted by Rapid Vienna scouts at the age of 14, they decided to move close to the Austrian border in order for him to enrol in the club's academy.

Three years later, he was already a regular starter for Rapid's reserves in the third division, and nurtured hopes of making the step to the first-team squad.

Such an opportunity indeed occurred in May 2016, when an injury crisis forced Rapid coach Zoran Barisic into handing Szalai his top-flight debut. His performance against Altach was outstanding, as he attempted 100 passes and even two shots on goal, leaving Barisic purring.

"Attila is an intelligent player who reminds me of Holger Badstuber," the coach said post-match, citing the then-Bayern Munich star as a comparison.

"Unfortunately, Holger is often injured, while I am much luckier with injuries," Szalai said in response. "But as far as his playing strengths are concerned, it is a great honour that the coach said that about me."

It was at that stage of his career that PSV Eindhoven showed an interest in signing Szalai, but Rapid refused to let their young star depart just as he was breaking into the first-team picture.

That could have been the beginning of something special for the defender, but Barisic left that summer, and his successors did not rate Szalai as highly.

A year later, he decided to take a step back and join Mezokovesd in his homeland in a bid to get regular playing time in the top flight. The decision paid off partially, as even though he was not always first choice, he did lock down a place in the Hungary Under-21s side.

That was how Szalai came to the attention of Apollon Limassol's sporting director, Petros Konnafis, who was mightily impressed with the centre-back during Hungary's U21 European Championship qualifying fixture against Cyprus in 2018.

Lengthy negotiations followed, and by 2019 a fee of €400,000 - a major transfer outlay by Cypriot standards - was agreed. Szalai has never looked back.

Szalai made his debut for Hungary in late 2019, and by the following year his place in the starting line-up was absolutely undisputed, as RB Leipzig captain Willi Orban took him under his wing.

Euro 2020's postponement was definitely a blessing for the rising star, and his performances against Portugal, France and Germany in the summer of 2021 were superb in terms of both his defensive play and how he was able to begin attacks with accurate long balls. Such was his influence, that some pundits in his homeland began calling him 'the Hungarian Van Dijk'.

By that time, Szalai was already plying his trade in Istanbul. His father had initially stated that the Bundesliga would be his son's preferred destination, but Fenerbahce made a very good offer in January 2021, and Apollon were willing to sell for €2 million - a fee that now looks a bargain.

And though the Turkish giants are not enjoying the best of times in Super Lig, Szalai has proven to be a shining light throughout the entire year, with some fans even claiming that he is one of the best defenders in the long and storied history of the club.

Napoli reportedly showed an interest in signing him over the summer, but now Chelsea may be about to come calling.

Speaking fluent German from his time in Austria, communicating clearly with Tuchel would not be a problem. The ex-Paris Saint-Germain coach is likely to be looking for defensive reinforcements in the coming months, with Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen both out of contract at the end of the season, and in Szalai the European champions would be getting a potential world-class player who has gained experience during the last year and is constantly improving.

In short, Szalai could be a godsend to Chelsea – or at least a Gödsend, as he was brought up in the Hungarian town of Göd.

Thiago Silva would also be the best mentor imaginable for him, too, and so while the deal might not be as close as Rossi claimed earlier this week, there would be plenty of reasons why the Blues would do well to bring Szalai into Stamford Bridge.