The international break can often be a time of rest and recuperation for Serie A clubs. Not for Lazio.
Outside the gates of Formello, the investigation into the club’s handling of its Covid-19 testing continues to attract endless debate and speculation.
Inside, Luis Alberto’s public complaints about the club buying an aeroplane while not fully paying their players angered staff and fans alike.
On the pitch, Ciro Immobile finally returned to availability after eventually testing negative for the coronavirus, but the celebratory mood was soon dampened when the Serbian FA announced that Sergej Milinkovic-Savic picked up the virus on international duty.
While all of this has been going on, something important has been happening in the background – Senad Lulic is back on the Lazio training pitches.
The Biancocelesti captain has been absent since February with an ankle problem that required two operations, and his absence has been felt.
Despite his advancing years – the Bosnian turns 35 in January – Lulic’s tactical intelligence and leadership qualities were notably missed as Lazio collapsed at the end of last season.
Lulic is something of an enigma. He has never been the most talented or technically gifted player in the Lazio squad during his nine years in Rome, but putting an effective succession plan in place for the left wing-back has proved to be one of the hardest tasks of Igli Tare’s tenure as sporting director.
Mohamed Fares is the latest player to be labelled as the long-term heir to Lulic on Lazio’s left flank, but he’s far from the first.
The Algerian arrived from SPAL in the summer and hopes were immediately raised that Simone Inzaghi might finally have an alternative to Lulic that he can rely on.
In recent years, Jordan Lukaku, Riza Durmisi and Jony have all tried, and failed, to prove they have what it takes to nail down the left wing-back spot in the capital.
The reasons differed. Durmisi never convinced Inzaghi enough to earn regular game time, Lukaku was constantly plagued with fitness issues, and Jony was a winger who failed to convincingly transition to a new role.
The one thing all three had in common was that they were thrown into Serie A from foreign leagues without any prior experience of Italian football, and then asked to perform one of the most tactically complex and demanding roles in Lazio’s system.
This is where Fares has an advantage over his predecessors. The 24-year-old has been in Italy for the last seven-and-a-half years, and during his time in Ferrara he played on the left of a 3-5-2 system, much like he’s being asked to by Inzaghi.
What’s more, his old partner in crime at SPAL, Manuel Lazzari, is on the opposite flank at Lazio.
But Fares has already faced criticism from his own demanding fans. The accuracy of his crossing has been a sore point, and he admitted that his delivery hasn’t been good enough earlier this month.
After the 1-1 draw against Juventus, Fares responded to fans’ comments by saying: “you’re right, I will practice my crossing”.
It was an admirable gesture and the sign of a player who is willing to address issues in his game rather than ignore them.
Inzaghi has often stressed that all of his new signings, Fares included, will need time to adapt to his system. It should be remembered that even Lazzari, now a key player for the Biancocelesti, needed some time to find his feet in Rome.
Fares has had his moments, in particular his spectacular overhead kick assist for Immobile in the win over Bologna in October, and many of the complaints around his performances will be the result of a general distrust in whoever is selected as the ‘vice-Lulic’ after years of trouble finding a successor. There is no hiding place.
It will be interesting to see how Inzaghi plays his cards once Lulic is fully fit again, which could be by next weekend, when they face Udinese in Rome.
There are no guarantees that Lulic will be the same player he was, after such a lengthy and serious injury absence at his age.
Inzaghi must now decide whether to stick with Fares as his first choice or bring his captain back in – if the baton is to finally be passed on, this hectic season could be the time to do it. .
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