This will be an anxious week at Lazio HQ. Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Udinese produced some big talking points: the Zebrette extended their unbeaten run to a remarkable nine matches, while Maurizio Sarri said afterwards that Lazio owner Claudio Lotito can “find another coach” if the condition of the Stadio Olimpico turf doesn’t improve.
But the only thing on the mind of the Biancocelesti supporters as they headed into the Roman sunshine was the health of their captain, top scorer and talisman Ciro Immobile.
The striker’s pain-faced limp off the pitch after half an hour left the crowd, and seemingly his teammates, worried. And for good reason.
Lazio have no plan B
A serious injury to Immobile is the ultimate doomsday scenario for Lazio, largely thanks to poor planning.
While the rest of the squad was commendably bolstered over the summer with the likes of Alessio Romagnoli, Ivan Provedel and Matias Vecino, the Aquile went into Sarri’s second season with just one natural striker.
The fact that it’s Immobile has helped disguise this unsettling truth. The Italy international remains as reliable as ever and currently sits joint-top of the capocannoniere charts in search of a joint-record fifth top Serie A scorer crown.
Lazio have purred in attack this season, with the prolifically productive Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and in-form Mattia Zaccagni also helping make Sarri’s side the second-top scorers in the league behind Napoli.
But no Plan B has been decided, or even properly trialled, for what happens if Immobile goes down.
Last season Vedat Muriqi wasn’t up to the task as a back-up, but his presence did at least give Immobile the odd opportunity to rest.
This season, the striker has started every game in both Serie A and the Europa League, and clocked up more minutes than any other outfield played: 1,252.
“Signs aren’t positive” for Immobile and Lazio
Immobile turns 33 in February and runs his socks off for a living.
It can’t be a huge surprise, then, that he has encountered a muscular problem amid a fixture pile-up that has been an oft-lamented issue in this unique winter World Cup year.
“The important thing is that Ciro stopped straight away, but the initial signs aren’t positive” Lazio’s team doctor Fabio Rodia said.
“It will take a few days to work out the exact issue.”
Onlookers at the Olimpico got a glimpse of an Immobile-less existence against Udinese, as the chances almost immediately dried up once he left the field.
Lazio’s best openings – Marco Silvestri saves on Felipe Anderson and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – both came while the 32-year-old was on, and their attack didn’t click without him.
That may well be because it doesn’t know how to. Not only does Immobile always play, and therefore his team-mates are used to working around him, but his deputies aren’t strikers by trade.
Time for Lazio to get creative
Anderson filled in, as he occasionally has in the past, against Udinese, but the Brazilian has never convinced anyone that he’s set to become the subject of Sarri’s next great Dries Mertens-esque winger-to-striker transformation.
“It’s hard to replace a player like Immobile without a negative effect, but last year we played like this, using a forward line without natural strikers, and we did quite well.”
He has a point. Last season it wasn’t always a disaster when Lazio used a false nine; they earned wins over Genoa and Venezia and drew with Udinese, Juventus and Verona while using Anderson or Jovane Cabral through the middle.
But the system remains relatively untested, and the only player who has been touted as a ‘vice-Immobile’ in the squad is 20-year-old winger Matteo Cancellieri.
The youngster has looked promising during substitute cameos in his favoured position on the right flank, but a little lost as a striker.
Because he isn’t a striker, not yet at least. And he’s played very little since his summer move from Verona – the stats may say eight Serie A appearances, but they were all from the bench and add up to just 80 minutes overall.
There are no two ways about it – an injury to Immobile is a frightening prospect for a Lazio side that relies on his goals, his leadership and his familiar presence as a leader of the line.
Everyone on the blue side of Rome wil be crossing their fingers and toes that Immobile’s issue isn’t a serious one – but it has at the very least highlighted that the long-running search for a valid back-up remains as crucial now as it ever was before.