Out of crisis comes opportunity, so they say. If that’s true, there will be plenty of chances going at Lazio this season.
With just three weeks of the season played, Luiz Felipe, Denis Vavro, Stefan Radu, Bastos, Adam Marusic and Senad Lulic have all suffered injuries, squeezing the Biancocelesti’s limited defensive resources to the limit.
There was hope that the international break would provide a timely healing window, but instead Lazio head back into Serie A action more depleted than ever, with Manuel Lazzari, Gonzalo Escalante and Felipe Caicedo joining the ranks of walking wounded ahead of the trip to Sampdoria.
Ciro Immobile’s absence has caused more intrigue than any other, though.
The European Golden Shoe holder is suspended for the journey north, due to his red card against Inter, and with Caicedo sidelined, the stage is set for Lazio’s major summer signing Vedat Muriqi to make his much-anticipated debut.
READY FOR BATTLE
The Kosovo international arrived from Fenerbahce in the summer for an €18 fee that could rise to €20m, making him the second-biggest signing of Claudio Lotito’s 16-year reign as Lazio owner.
Expectations were raised as the club finally secured a ‘vice-Immobile’ to lead the attack in the Italy international’s absence, providing coach Simone Inzaghi with the target man he has been pining for.
The first thing that struck many Lazio fans was just how loved Muriqi was by his old club in Turkey. Fenerbahce supporters plastered social media with well-wishes for the 26-year-old, who spent just one season with the Istanbul club.
Muriqi’s popularity in part comes from his ferocious competitiveness and determination, the warrior spirit that football fans are so easily seduced by.
But this character trait isn’t an act. The striker had to show great resilience from early in life, having lived through through a traumatic childhood in the war-torn surroundings of his native Kosovo.
At the age of six, Muriqi escaped his home city of Prizren with his mother by travelling from house to house on foot towards the Albanian border, sleeping huddled in cellars and surviving off small portions of milk, bread and onions.
The striker’s journey from the war zone of Kosovo to his debut Serie A and Champions League campaigns has been a remarkable and steady rise.
Muriqi wasn’t pampered in an elite football academy. He has grafted his way up the European football ladder to end up in Rome: from the Albanian league to the Turkish second division, and eventually the Super Lig, before Italy.
He arrives with great votes of confidence from those who have worked closely with him.
Former Inter midfielder Okan Buruk coached Muriqi at Caykur Rizespor in 2018/19 to great success; the striker’s 17 top-flight goals earning him his move to Fenerbahce, and Buruk the Istanbul Basaksehir job.
Buruk described his former charge as “the best attacker in all of Turkey”.
Muriqi has scored eight international goals in 23 caps for Kosovo and his national boss Bernard Challandes has called him a “warrior” who “plays every match like it’s his last”.
He also added that Muriqi would be “better alongside Joaquin Correa than Immobile”. Just as well, as that is the partnership that is set to start at the Marassi on Saturday.
THE LAZIO MURIQI
With Immobile suspended and Caicedo struggling, Inzaghi’s hand is forced when it comes to his selection process.
But, as Challandes suggested, the contrasting characteristics of Correa and Muriqi could quickly form a difficult and devastating combination.
Muriqi’s physical attributes alone make him a handful for opposition defenders. Standing at 6ft 4in (1.94m), and possessing great strength and aerial ability, he requires the full attention of a defender who is up for a battle.
At his presentation press conference this week, journalists hunting for a headline were quick to ask him about his nickname: “The Ibrahimovic of Kosovo”.
“I’ll be the Vedat Muriqi of Lazio, not the Ibra of Lazio,” he replied. That’s the end of that, then.
His strength lies in his work for the team and ability to link up the attack, as much as his eye for goal.
“He’s not a pure scorer, but I would say Lazio has a real warrior right now,” Onur Ozgen, Turkish football expert for Goal, told the Lazio Lounge podcast.
“You can be sure that all defenders in Italy will hate him. His pressure on defences is top class.”
As Ozgen highlights, Muriqi’s strike rate isn’t particularly eye-catching. In 112 Super Lig appearances, he scored 37 goals, a commendable if not especially impressive tally.
But his ability to offer something completely new for Lazio is what excites. His work off the ball can help free up space for the dancing feet of Correa or the deadly Immobile, while his ability in the air could finally see the Aquile take advantage of the crosses from their wing-backs, which have so often gone to waste in the past.
Manuel Lazzari produced nine Serie A assists for SPAL in 2018/19 when he had the hulking shape of Andrea Petagna to aim at with his crosses, while last term at Lazio he managed just four without an obvious target in the box.
Muriqi will provide that target and bring a new dimension to the Lazio attack, as well as a ferocious combativeness that they have sometimes lacked.
Watch out, Serie A defences – you’ve been warned.
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