Lazio must dust off chequebook to ward off Juventus interest in Simone Inzaghi

Simone Inzaghi

As the haze from the post-Coppa Italia celebrations begins to clear, some images are stronger than others.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic rising higher than anyone to head in the opener. Joaquin Correa bursting through the Atalanta defence to seal Lazio’s seventh win in the competition.

And Simone Inzaghi being lifted on the shoulders of his players after masterminding the 2-0 victory from the touchline.

It was the crowning achievement of Inzaghi’s tenure in charge of the Roman club and one that silenced the critics, who had started to emerge after an inconsistent season in which he failed to achieve the objective of Champions League qualification.

Inzaghi’s 20-year long affiliation with the club as a player and coach, his passion on the touchline and his capacity to form a united squad capable of playing dazzling football has made him the most popular coach in years among the fans.

When the squad names are read out over the stadium speakers before every home game, Inzaghi’s name is the only one that comes even close to matching Ciro Immobile for cheers.

Over three-and-a-bit years as coach he has racked up the second-highest average points total of any coach in Lazio’s history, only trailing Scudetto-winning boss Sven Goran Eriksson.

Winning his first major trophy with the club last Wednesday should’ve been the moment of peak Inzaghi-mania among Biancocelesti supporters.

Instead, it has resulted in the biggest concerns over his long-term future with the club to date, as he refused to commit himself after the victory before this week being installed as the favourite for the Juventus job when Massmiliano Allegri’s departure was confirmed.

Asked what the future holds after the cup final, Inzaghi said: “I’ve been in this family since 1999 as a player and then a coach. There were moments when I thought I’d be protected a little more, but I know who makes gratuitous criticism and who tries to be constructive.

“It’s right that we enjoy this evening, then there will be time to sit down with (director of sport Igli) Tare and the President to discuss everything. We have a good rapport, but some things shouldn’t be taken for granted the way people say.”

Inzaghi has made his fair share of mistakes this season and hasn’t been immune to criticism, so the 43-year-old did not miss a chance to hit back at his detractors.

You could forgive the coach for being rubbed up the wrong way by president Claudio Lotito publicly stating that he had failed in his objectives for Serie A and the Europa League this season.

Lotito has since added that he would be upset if Inzaghi decided to leave the club, but the vocal criticism of his coach’s work may have put him on the back foot if Juve come calling.

“For me, he remains with us,” Lotito said. “On my part there is nothing but affection and trust, we have a great relationship and I don’t want him to leave. Then again, I don’t know what he wants to do, but he has always treated me with affection.

“If he left it would hurt me because he wouldn’t have understood what type of relationship I have with him.”

These comments smelled a little of desperation, of Lotito realising he may have overstepped the line in testing his coach’s patience.

Demands of a top-four finish were arguably unfair as although only head-to-head record prevented Lazio from achieving that goal last season, most of their rivals for the Champions League places invested heavily in the summer and January transfer windows.

Inzaghi, meanwhile, was left with a squad lacking the quality in depth needed to compete on three fronts. Decent money was spent last summer on Francesco Acerbi and Joaquin Correa, but they were direct replacements for the outgoing Stefan de Vrij and Felipe Anderson and therefore didn’t add depth.

It was hoped that was the role Milan Badelj, Valon Berisha and Riza Durmisi would play, but all three have failed to make any real impact in Rome.

Meanwhile, Roma, Inter and Milan were flashing the cash; the latter even forked out around £60 million in January for Krzysztof Piatek and Lucas Paqueta. In the same market, Lazio brought in Romulo on loan.

Atalanta have proven to be the surprise anomaly, punching above their weight with the 14th-highest wage budget in the league, but you could argue their early elimination from Europe may have helped them stay fresh with a slim squad.

As the rumours get louder every day that Juve could come knocking for Inzaghi, Lotito needs to pull out all the stops if he is to convince his coach that he will be adequately backed to achieve the lofty expectations being demanded of him.

From Inzaghi’s perspective, you can understand why the thought of moving to Turin would be a good career move, as he would be greeted there by the best squad and biggest budget in Italy, not to mention one of the best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo.

What’s more, he is a long-time friend of Juve sporting director Fabio Paratici after their time together as players at Piacenza.

Inzaghi must sometimes pinch himself that it is even be talking about as a possibility, when you consider that just over three years ago he was coaching at Primavera level, before being handed the first-team job almost by default after the Marcelo Bielsa fiasco.

While there is much to be said for finding diamonds in the rough when it comes to transfers, and this is an area that Tare has often excelled in, Inzaghi has every right to demand that he is backed in the market this summer with known quality being targeted rather than, or at least in addition to, unknown quantities or bargain-bin discounts.

The financial prudence of Lotito is renowned, but if there is ever a time to flash the chequebook a bit more, this summer is it. The Coppa Italia triumph is unlikely to paper over the cracks of a season of regression and a general refreshing of the squad is required.

The promise of a strong summer transfer window, combined with keeping the core of the squad together and ditching some of the deadwood, could solidify the feeling that under Inzaghi a long-term project is underway that is heading in the right direction.

Only time will tell if that will be enough to cast away the lurking shadow of the Old Lady.

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