It wasn’t the day anyone expected Denis Vavro to make his first Serie A start for Lazio; not least the man himself.
Last Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off away to Genoa always threatened to be a difficult task for the Biancoceleste given the improved form of the Rossoblu, who have a well-earned status as a bogey team for the capital club.
But the challenge facing Simone Inzaghi’s side appeared all the more daunting when the news arrived in the hour before kick-off that Francesco Acerbi had pulled out through injury in the warm-up, after originally being named in the starting XI.
Vavro stepped into his place, prompting a nervy reaction from Lazio fans who were yet to be convinced by the big Slovakian during his outings in the Europa League and substitute cameos in Serie A.
But the 23-year-old answered the call in impressive fashion, putting in an assured display at the heart of the back three to help Lazio to a 3-2 victory that extended their record unbeaten run to 20 games.
After a nervous start, the defender settled and kept things simple, winning his headers, battering away clearances and remaining calm when the momentum turned against the visitors during a frantic match.
He was picked out for particular praise by Inzaghi afterwards, with the coach saying: “Our squad is made up of friends who have fun together, in training and on the pitch.
“The example today is Vavro, who has a monster like Acerbi ahead of him, but after two and a half months of rest he was the best player on the pitch.”
It was a big turning point for the former FC Copenhagen man, who has had an otherwise difficult debut season in the capital for several reasons.
Firstly, he arrived with an €11 million price tag on his head. That is substantial by Lazio’s standards and, as was widely publicised, it made him the third most expensive defender in the club’s history after two iconic figures in Jaap Stam and Sinisa Mihajlovic. Expectations were raised, rightly or wrongly.
Vavro was immediately thrust into the starting team in pre-season friendly matches, playing on the right side of Lazio’s back three.
But he never appeared comfortable in the role due to his limited passing range, lack of pace and above all his unfamiliarity with what was required of him, after spending most of his career in the centre of a back four.
He started every match in the Europa League group stages, but Lazio’s campaign was a disaster as they performed poorly and failed to reach the knockout stages, with Vavro coming in for criticism for his performances along the way.
To make matters worse, he then picked up an injury that ruled him out for a month over Christmas after falling out of favour.
What soon became clear was that the Slovakia international is best suited to the central position in the back three, where he can demonstrate his aerial ability and physicality, and has more time on the ball to make decisions.
The problem, as Inzaghi alluded to after the Genoa game, has been that Acerbi is the first choice in that role, and the Italy international is not a man to take days off.
Last weekend’s game was the first he has missed for the club through injury since arriving in the summer of 2018, while Inzaghi has shown before that he believes Luiz Felipe is also well-suited to the central role in the back three, further limiting Vavro’s chances.
Now the Slovakian has a chance to show he does have something to offer this team.
One good display against Genoa was encouraging, but with Acerbi set to miss Saturday’s clash with Bologna, Vavro is now in a position to demonstrate that he is a squad player who can be relied upon throughout the Serie A run-in.
Inzaghi has shown time and again that he is a coach that knows how to get the best out of his players, be it by transforming Luis Alberto from a frustrated winger to the best midfield playmaker in Italy, Patric from an erratic liability to a reliable and versatile defender, or Felipe Caicedo from a wasteful, lumbering striker to an effective target man and regular source of goals. The list goes on.
Vavro has shown the right attitude and commitment so far. He is only 23 years old, and this is his first season in Serie A after a career previously spent in Denmark and Slovakia.
If he can now string together two assured performances in a row, he will be well on the way to raising hopes that he can be the next player to benefit from Inzaghi’s golden touch.
How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Serie A Fantasy Managers? Play www.fantasyseriea.com now!