Lazio’s priority in the summer transfer window was clear: to strengthen the overall depth of the squad.
With the additions of Andreas Pereira, Vedat Muriqi, Mohamed Fares, Gonzalo Escalante, Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro and Wesley Hoedt, coach Simone Inzaghi was handed new options across the park.
But few expected that the signing to make arguably the biggest impact of all come December would be Pepe Reina.
The veteran’s arrival was low key, as you might expect for a 38-year-old reserve goalkeeper.
But over the last few weeks, the Spaniard has seized his opportunity while Thomas Strakosha was out injured, presenting Inzaghi with genuine competition for the goalkeeper spot in his Lazio side for the very first time.
THE RISE OF STRAKOSHA
Strakosha has been one of Inzaghi’s great success stories since he took over the Biancocelesti job in April 2016.
Few expected much of the young keeper after an underwhelming loan spell at Salernitana in Serie B during the 2015/16 season, despite him coming from good stock: Strakosha’s father Foto earned 73 caps as Albania’s first-choice goalkeeper between 1990 and 2005, and he now coaches young shot-stoppers in the Olympiacos youth sector.
But Inzaghi had faith in the player, having seen what he could do while in charge of the Lazio Primavera side. With Strakosha in goal, Inzaghi led the Biancocelesti’s youth team to the Scudetto and Coppa Italia in the space of two years.
This was the context in which the Aquile coach surprisingly handed Strakosha the first-team gloves during the 2016/17 season, and he never let them go – racking up 153 appearances over the next four seasons in Rome.
The speed with which he settled into life as a top Serie A goalkeeper came as something of a surprise, not least to former Lazio striker Miroslav Klose.
“Honestly I would’ve put all my savings on the fact that he wouldn’t manage to become the starting goalkeeper – he didn’t transmit an air of security,” the German said to Gazzetta dello Sport last year.
“But his growth shows simply that you need to give youngsters space and time to develop”.
REINA TAKES HIS CHANCE
Strakosha hasn’t been without his critics during his time as No.1.
His inaccurate kicking and distribution have been a regular source of frustration for the fans, while his indecisiveness on high balls and crosses has occasionally been costly – not least his howler in January’s Rome Derby.
However, the rarity of Strakosha’s errors, a collection of eye-catching saves requiring lightning reflexes, and the promise of improvement – he’s still just 25 – meant that his starting shirt was never in doubt. Until now.
Strakosha’s 2020/21 campaign has been heavily disrupted due to injury and a positive Covid-19 test.
So far, he’s featured just six times all season, and hasn’t appeared in the Champions League since starting in the opening day 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund.
Reina seized his chance after his rival’s coronavirus diagnosis and earned positive reviews for his performances, particularly for his role in the 2-1 win over Spezia last weekend, when his team were under the cosh for large spells.
The Spaniard’s distribution and calmness with the ball at his feet has caught the eye – particularly in comparison with Strakosha.
Interestingly, Inzaghi’s responses to questions about the goalkeeping situation have changed recently.
On 23 November he underlined that “Strakosha is our starting goalkeeper”, a declaration that was then repeated by sporting director Igli Tare before the Brugge game on Tuesday.
But ahead of Saturday’s clash with Verona, Inzaghi wasn’t quite as forthright in his stance.
“I will choose on a game-by-game basis, I’m happy with what Strakosha has done over the years and I’m happy with Reina now,” he said.
A QUESTION OF CONSISTENCY
It’s clear that the battle for the Lazio gloves is more open than it ever has been, with previous back-ups like Silvio Proto, Ivan Vargic and Guido Guerrieri unable to mount a serious challenge to Strakosha’s place in the team.
Reina hasn’t been without his faults, and his disastrous error for Brugge’s opening goal this week, where he spilled a shot into the path of an onrushing striker, has taken some of the shine off his early form.
It wasn’t Reina’s first mistake – his poor clearance led to Dortmund’s equaliser a week earlier and showed that while his kicking is better than Strakosha’s, it isn’t flawless.
However, when Strakosha was handed the gloves again recently, Lazio fell to an embarrassing 3-1 home defeat to Udinese and the Albanian was blamed for letting the Zebrette’s third squeeze past him at his near post.
Lazio’s overall defensive record this season has been poor, keeping just two clean sheets in all competitions. But when you look at the story so far, you can see why Inzaghi has been leaning more on Reina.
The Spaniard has shipped 12 goals in 10 appearances, while Strakosha has conceded the same number in just six outings.
With Reina in goal, Lazio have a win ration of 50%. With Strakosha, that falls to 33%.
It could be argued that the uncertainty around the goalkeeper position – something the Lazio defenders aren’t used to – has contributed to this poor defensive form.
But Inzaghi’s choice will likely be influenced by who he feels he can trust more, and Lazio have so far been getting better results with the 38-year-old between the sticks.
However, although Strakosha hasn’t convinced in his handful of appearances so far this season, he hasn’t let his coach down very often over the last four years.
Reina deserves great credit for the way he has eased into the group, but he won’t get away with many more high-profile mistakes and he lacks one thing his rival has in abundance: credit in the bank with Inzaghi.
Lazio wanted competition for places and that is what has been delivered, if not in the expected area. It’s game on for the goalkeepers.
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