When you go to watch Lazio play at the Olimpico, it is soon obvious who the stars of this team are from the player names appearing on the back of the fans’ shirts.
You will see crowds of Immobile 17, Alberto 10 or Sergej 21 drifting past you as you head through the turnstiles, with the odd Lulic 19, Correa 11 or Lucas 6 thrown in.
There is no shortage of standout players in this team, but those flying under the radar have played a crucial part in their success this season; none more so than Felipe Caicedo.
It wasn’t that long ago, about a year and a half to be precise, that most Lazio fans wanted to see the back of the Ecuadorian as he was scapegoated for their late-season collapse in 2017/18.
Caicedo missed crucial chances away to Crotone on the penultimate day of the campaign, which would have secured their first Champions League campaign in 11 years, before a final day defeat to Inter saw Simone Inzaghi’s side agonisingly slip out of the top four at the death.
But the striker won the fans over last season with his attitude, will to improve and desire to work hard for the team. Soon his performances improved, as did his goal return.
By now, the ‘Panterone’ has become one of the most popular members of the squad, helped by his penchant for a late goal this season – a topic covered in these pages back in December.
The 31-year-old’s development under Inzaghi has been a joy to watch. He now knows exactly what he can offer this side, and his link-up play and physicality has made him an effective foil for both Ciro Immobile and Joaquin Correa.
But he is still vastly underrated for his goalscoring ability. Caicedo has never quite managed to convince the wider public that he is anything approaching being a prolific striker, perhaps as a result of his poor debut season and his seemingly low goal tallies.
But his double in the 5-1 win over SPAL last weekend took him to seven goals in 17 Serie A games this season, just one shy of his total for 2018/19.
While that may not sound immediately impressive, it equates to a goal every 97 minutes. By anyone’s standards, that is a reliable return.
Caicedo and Immobile are now the most prolific partnership in Europe’s top five leagues with 32 goals between them, three ahead of Bayern Munich’s combination of Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry.
The former Espanyol and Manchester City striker is an example of the rewards that await coaches and clubs if they have the patience and foresight not to make snap judgments after one poor season.
He’s not alone, either. Inzaghi has become a master at getting the best out of his squad, and the improved performances of Lazio’s backup players this season is testament to that ability.
It wasn’t long ago that Patric was considered a liability. While his versatility was useful, his defensive lapses were too damaging for him to be considered worthy of a team like Lazio.
Now, he has become an important squad player who has massively improved that side of his game. During the midweek 0-0 draw with Verona, the Spaniard won 100% of his six duels, the only player on the pitch to do so, and also made the most tackles of any Lazio player.
This season he is winning more tackles per game (1.6), committing fewer fouls (0.3) and making more blocks (0.7). Put simply, patience, understanding and training has turned him from an unreliable defender to a reliable one.
The same can be said for Bastos, who looked certain to be thrown onto the pile of disastrous, error-prone Lazio defenders along with the likes of Wallace and Mauricio after his difficult debut season in 2016/17.
Instead, he has been taught how to cut down on individual errors, while his strengths, particularly his technical ability, pace and physicality in one-on-one battles, have been utilised more effectively.
The Angolan’s name no longer strikes fear into the hearts of Lazio fans when it appears on the team sheet. On the contrary, they might be hopeful that the man this writer affectionately refers to as ‘Marco van Bastos’ might pull one of his wonder-goals out of the hat.
Danilo Cataldi’s time at Lazio looked up after he was sent on loan to Genoa and Benevento, but the lifelong Biancocelesti fan returned and convinced Inzaghi and his staff that he has a part to play.
By accepting his reduced role in a competitive midfield, showing the right attitude and taking his chances when they come, Cataldi has taken advantage of the open-door policy at Formello.
The next player who looks set to follow suit is Bobby Adekanye, who scored his first goal for the club against SPAL.
The supporters immediately took the former Liverpool youngster to heart and his winning smile, dedication and willingness to learn have seen him have a similar affect on Inzaghi.
The stars will always be the stars. And while we may not see many Caicedo 20 shirts heading towards the stadium any time soon, he has at least shown Lazio’s fringe players the path from being an outsider to a fan favourite.
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