As the news filtered through a few hours before kick-off, no one could quite believe it: Ciro Immobile would start on the bench for Lazio against Inter.
Immobile has started the new season at his lethal best, scoring four goals in his first four games ahead of the trip to San Siro, and another for Italy on international duty.
When the official line-up came out to confirm that Felipe Caicedo would partner Joaquin Correa in attack, there was a general assumption that it must have something to do with Immobile’s strop during Sunday’s win over Parma.
In that game, the striker scored the opening goal but threw a tantrum on his way back to the bench when his number came up in the second half.
The incident was quickly brushed under the carpet; a fine was handed out, several apologies were made, and all was forgiven and forgotten.
Simone Inzaghi’s decision to leave him out was met with rage in some quarters and the coach’s insistence after the 1-0 defeat that it had been a tactical choice was scoffed at by many.
Who, after all, would bench their top scorer for one of the biggest games of the season?
But while it did appear a strange call at the time, Inzaghi’s selection was justified during the first half.
POWER AND PACE
Facing a towering Inter defence, Caicedo was able to protect the ball in a way that Immobile can’t, as well as providing a platform for the attacks to build from and a target for under-pressure defenders to hit with long balls from deep.
The Ecuadorian also has a useful knack for drawing fouls to relieve pressure on his side and his ability to occupy defenders allowed Correa more of the space he thrives in as the former Sevilla man drifted around the final third dangerously.
Caicedo is remarkably unselfish for a striker, too much so at times. But his link-up abilities were at the centre of an impressive start for the visitors, who put Antonio Conte’s side under more pressure inside 45 minutes than they had encountered all season before then.
It was no coincidence that Caicedo was at the centre of their best chances. It was he who set up Correa’s curling strike denied superbly by a flying Samir Handanovic, he who played the Argentine in for a one on one he failed to take advantage of and he who set up a Bastos effort that required another wonderful save from the goalkeeper.
Correa was a constant thorn in the side for Inter and Handanovic showed lightning reflexes to get down low to stop what seemed a certain goal.
By the time the Argentina international sent a free header wide from six yards out after the break, you got the feeling the he, and Lazio, were never going to break through.
Immobile’s introduction on the 53rd minute for Caicedo coincided with a drop-off in attacking intensity from the visitors.
While the blame for that shouldn’t be laid entirely at the Italian’s feet, there was no doubting that Lazio missed the Ecuadorian’s unrelenting presence after he left the pitch.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
The beginning to the 2019/20 season has been littered with the same issues that have tripped the club up in their Champions League chases in recent seasons, resulting in many fans getting on Inzaghi’s back.
But the decision to select Caicedo and Correa in tandem up front proved to be a smart one as they combined to create numerous chances. If it weren’t for Inter’s flying Slovenian between the posts, they may well have come home with something to show for their efforts.
That said, Inzaghi did make some questionable calls which weren’t justified as the game played out.
The decision to hand Jony his first league start away to the league leaders in the place of captain Senad Lulic was an odd one, particularly considering the biggest lingering doubt about the Spaniard is his defensive nous as he adapts from a winger to a wing-back role.
Those fears played out as he was easily beaten in the air by Danilo D’Ambrosio for the goal that won the game.
Additionally, Marco Parolo’s selection ahead of Lucas Leiva in a holding midfielder role came as a surprise despite the veteran’s good performance in that position on the opening day against Sampdoria.
Then, when the Brazilian was eventually introduced, it was as a second half substitute for attacking midfielder Luis Alberto with Lazio chasing the game at 1-0 down.
Inzaghi again failed to instil any life and urgency into his side after the break in what is becoming an all-too familiar story this season.
But while there are legitimate criticisms to be made of his performance at San Siro, leaving his top scorer on the bench shouldn’t be one of them.
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