When Lazio’s third goal hit the net against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday night to cap a superb return to the Champions League, the fans’ elation was mixed with surprise.
Who would have possibly predicted that the decisive goal of the Biancocelesti’s first group stage match in 13 years would be scored by Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro?
The midfielder himself appeared as stunned as anyone by how events unfolded.
“When I signed for Lazio I didn’t think that I would play straight away, I’d like to thank the coach for this,” he said after the game.
He wasn’t the only one. Akpa Akpro’s arrival from Serie B side Salernitana over the summer fell under the radar, with most fan and media attention understandably being directed towards €20m man Vedat Muriqi, a botched move for David Silva and the failure to upgrade the defence.
But Akpa Akpro’s late run into the box and tidy finish was all he deserved for an impressive start to life at Lazio, following encouraging cameos from the bench in Serie A.
The Ivory Coast international’s big moment didn’t go unnoticed outside of Italy either, as his friend and compatriot Didier Drogba took to social media to congratulate him.
“You’re an example to follow for those who think they don’t have a chance,” the former Chelsea great said.
“Courage, wisdom and faith always bring success”.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
Drogba’s words of support came from an appreciation of the long, winding journey Akpa Akpro has been on to reach this point.
The midfielder joined Toulouse as a youngster and his early years in Ligue 1 promised a bright career ahead; he was named captain of the club aged just 23 and went to the 2014 World Cup with his country.
But his progress was derailed when problems with pubalgia saw him miss the first six months of the 2016/17 season, and a subsequent operation ruled him out for another year.
Akpa Akpro was released by Toulouse in the summer of 2017, and wasn’t picked up by Salernitana until February 2018 after half a year in the football wilderness.
Just 18 months after being a regular in Ligue 1 and an Ivory Coast international, he was in Serie B.
“I wanted to move country,” he explained. “My dream was to come to Italy, when I was little I watched a lot of Zidane’s matches at Juventus and liked Juve a lot, as well as Milan and Lazio.”
Salernitana’s coach at the time of Akpa Akpro’s arrival was Stefano Colantuono, and although the boss was careful to ease the midfielder back into action, he was instantly struck by his new arrival.
“You could see he had important qualities,” Colantuono told La Lazio Siamo Noi.
“He’s a player with a monstrous intensity and an incredible change of pace, who recovers so many balls.
“But the thing that made the difference and struck me a lot was this guy’s great seriousness and availability. He’s a professional from another time, a person with extraordinary qualities.”
Last season, Akpa Akpro made 31 appearances for Salernitana in Serie B, the most games he had played in a season in four years.
Nevertheless, Lazio’s swoop came as a surprise. Players moving between the two clubs is nothing new, as Claudio Lotito owns both sides.
But going into the new campaign, the likes of Sofian Kiyine or Cristiano Lombardi were considered likeliest to make the step up to Serie A and follow in the footsteps of previous youngsters blooded in Salerno, like Thomas Strakosha and Luiz Felipe.
Salernitana’s reputation among Laziali as a testing ground for youngsters meant that many fans were surprised to hear that Akpa Akpro is already 28 years old.
But surprise around the move didn’t just come from the fans – it came from the man himself.
“Lotito believed in me, he told me that I was playing well, but I didn’t know that he would sign me for Lazio,” Akpa Akpro admitted.
The Ivorian’s dynamic, energetic appearances from the bench were one of the few bright sparks of a disappointing start to Lazio’s league campaign, and could soon earn him a starting spot as fixtures pile up.
His move to Serie A also earned him a return to the Ivory Coast set-up during this month’s international break, where he featured from the bench against Belgium and Japan to earn his first caps in five years.
The 28-year-old is now being talked about as Lazio’s surprise gem of the summer transfer window and could be the unlikely hero to provide a valid rotation option for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during a hectic season ahead.
He is in the right place. His inspiring journey from injured free agent to Champions League matchwinner is fitting of a club with the motto “never give up”.
“Before the Dortmund game I wrote to Drogba and told him that I’ve realised my dream to play in the Champions League, and afterwards he said to me that this is just the start,” said Akpa Akpro.
Lazio fans will be hoping he’s right.
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