After another week of maddening inconsistency for Lazio, it seemed only fitting that Joaquin Correa was the man to offer a ray of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
The darkness descended on Easter Saturday with a 2-1 defeat at home to a relegated Chievo team who had previously won just once all season, causing seemingly irreparable damage to the capital club’s Champions League aspirations.
The abhorrent scenes of some Lazio supporters brandishing fascist banners in Milan before a larger number aimed racist abuse at AC Milan midfielders Tiemoue Bakayoko and Franck Kessie at San Siro during Wednesday night’s Coppa Italia semi-final second leg only increased the feelings of anger and frustration among the vast majority of the club’s support.
However, the Jekyll and Hyde-like character of Simone Inzaghi’s team saw them produce a wonderful performance on the pitch and secure a 1-0 win in one of Italy’s most imposing arenas. All in the space of five days.
Correa has flittered between electric and transparent during his debut season in Rome but, like many of his team-mates, he produced some of his finest work yet as his neat finish sent the capital club to their 10th Coppa Italia final.
Signed from Sevilla last summer to replace the West Ham-bound Felipe Anderson, the Argentine has divided opinion among the Lazio support so far.
His goal this week ended a drought stretching back to mid-December in all competitions, although his wait for a Serie A strike goes on, with his last having come against Milan, who must be sick of the sight of him, all the way back in November.
This inability to strike more regularly has been one of the main barbs of criticism Correa has been poked with, but his performance on Wednesday night showed signs of growth as he was the most dangerous player on the pitch with four shots, three chances created and, of course, the decisive goal.
The Argentine is so good at his best that it’s easy to imagine him playing at any level. He possesses bags of technical ability, ferocious pace, tight dribbling, nimble footwork and a powerful, if not always accurate, shot.
Napoli were recently credited with an interest in him, but the 24-year-old has shown enough in his debut season to suggest he will only improve with a second year in Rome.
Inzaghi eased his new signing into his team to begin with, using him predominantly as an impact substitute in the final 20 or 30 minutes of games as he looked to use the Argentina international’s pace and directness as a weapon against tiring defences.
Correa has made 39 appearances for the club so far this season, but only 23 of those have come from the start.
More opportunities came when Inzaghi elected midway through the season to drop Luis Alberto deeper into a central midfield position and use two strikers, freeing up a vacant spot alongside Ciro Immobile for Correa to vie for along with Felipe Caicedo.
While this isn’t the forward’s first season in Italian football – he spent the 2015/16 season at Sampdoria – he has nevertheless needed a period of adjustment to a new role which sees him line up in a central position and drift into the wide spaces, rather than starting on the wing as he often did at Sevilla.
Inzaghi has constantly reiterated his faith in his player throughout the season and he has another influential backer in the shape of Lazio legend Juan Sebastian Veron, who is now chairman of Correa’s boyhood club Estudiantes.
Veron was back in Rome earlier this month to witness his former club’s 2-2 draw with Sassuolo at the Stadio Olimpico, but he also took some time to discuss the progress of his current club’s protégé.
“I know him well, he has incredible talent and personality, but he still needs to develop,” he said.
“I often talk with him. This also happened to me, he needs to believe in his own importance and pull the team forward, that’s what he’s missing.”
Correa has been given the licence to lead by example not only by the iconic midfielder but also by his coach, who has encouraged him to shoot on sight.
The Argentine has regularly peppered efforts at goal, firing a total of 81 shots towards the opposition net this season. Only 34 of those were on target, and only six resulted in goals, but if he can improve that strike rate and add it to attacking statistics that also include 80 dribbles and 61 chances created during the current campaign, he will soon become a more consistent handful for Serie A defences.
It has been a debut season of real highs and disappointing lows for Correa, who undoubtedly possesses the talent to make another jump in quality but is yet to unlock the secret to showing his ability with consistency.
He isn’t the only player in the Lazio squad struggling with this issue but, with the encouraging words of Inzaghi and Veron ringing in his ears, it is time for Correa to back himself and become a more regularly decisive player.
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