Less than a year has passed since it seemed that all was lost for Felipe Caicedo at Lazio.
The Ecuadorian, brought in ahead of last season to provide an alternative to Ciro Immobile in Lazio’s attack, had shown few glimpses of possessing the quality needed to take the club back into the Champions League during regular cameos from the bench and occasional starts in his debut season.
However, he was handed a glorious chance to prove his critics wrong when the prolific Immobile picked up an injury with just a handful of games remaining of the 2017/18 campaign and a top four spot all-but secured.
Caicedo started, and scored, against Atalanta with three games to go but Simone Inzaghi’s side could only muster a draw.
A chance to make amends presented itself immediately. Lazio travelled to relegation-battling Crotone for the penultimate game of the season knowing that a win would assure them of Champions League football.
Caicedo again started and, with the score level at 1-1, he burst through the home side’s defence to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper. A little composure would’ve been enough to give Lazio the lead, but the former Espanyol striker hit a tame finish straight into the keeper’s grateful arms.
Later, he had a free header from a set piece, but nodded it off the crossbar. Lazio went on to draw 2-2, and completed their late-season collapse with defeat to Inter on the final day that saw them painfully drop out of the top four on head-to-head record.
It would be reductive to suggest that Caicedo single-handedly lost Lazio a Champions League spot, but his squandered chances that day in Calabria left the fans in no doubt that he was at best a substandard back-up option, at worst a liability who needed to be sold immediately.
It is incredible, therefore, to fast forward to the striker’s heroics in Saturday’s Rome derby, when he scored the opener in an extraordinary 3-0 win over Roma, a result that equalled the club’s best-ever result in the fixture and sparked a wave of celebration and optimism for laziali that is still going strong.
The derby holds momentous importance in the calendar of both capital clubs. This has been particularly clear over the last few days.
A week ago, Lazio were on the brink of a crisis as defeat in the derby would’ve made Champions League qualification all-but impossible. Instead, on Thursday the club opened its doors to 5000 fans for a midweek training session, celebrating a result that has united supporters, players and staff in their conviction that a top four spot, and even a Coppa Italia triumph, can be achieved in the weeks and months to come.
On the other side of town, Roma have gone from the thick of the top four race with one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals to being three points adrift of fourth and out of Europe, having sacked their coach Eusebio di Francesco and sporting director Monchi as a result.
For Caicedo, his performance in the derby has transformed him from a popular player to one of the most celebrated members of the squad. The 30-year-old’s composed finish, where he rounded Robin Olsen and stroked the ball into the net, was a world away from his flustered display in Crotone last May.
The Ecuadorian’s strike rate has not improved dramatically this season. His goal in the derby was his fourth of the season in Serie A, while he found the net once in the Europa League. However, his determination, humility and attitude have brought the fans onto his side.
He will always give everything he’s got and this attribute has been applauded by the supporters. He will accept a place on the bench or a mid-game substitution without drama, something that can’t be said for the likes of Luis Alberto, Patric or even captain Senad Lulic.
However, something the Ecuadorian has added to his arsenal this season is tactical flexibility. He is not a vice-Immobile. That hasn’t changed. But his physicality and link-up play offer Inzaghi something he otherwise doesn’t possess among his forwards.
Caicedo has played alongside Immobile on several occasions this season, as well as frequently leading the line with Joaquin Correa, as he did last Saturday. His newfound ability to play in a deeper role, on the shoulder of the main striker, has seen him gain more game time this season; he has already accumulated a total of 1,303 minutes on the pitch this season compared to 1,270 altogether last term.
While he will never be a prolific finisher, Caicedo’s form in front of goal kept Lazio’s engine running in a difficult period plagued by injuries and poor form recently. In contrast to his misses losing the club points last season, the striker single-handedly won Lazio six points as he scored winners in 1-0 victories over Frosinone and Empoli last month.
He has now scored three goals in his last four Serie A appearances, the same number he registered all of last season, and suddenly Inzaghi is having to consider for the first time in his tenure whether to start an in-form Caicedo or an out-of-form Immobile.
Derby goals help to make players legends on the blue side of Rome, with Immobile scoring the second to cement that status in their eyes and former youth team captain Danilo Cataldi adding a third in what he described as “the greatest moment of my career”.
Caicedo’s fan favourite status then took an even bigger boost when he responded to Roma’s Champions League elimination on Wednesday night with a laughing emoji – a sure-fire way to curry favour with the fans.
How long the golden period will last remains a mystery, but Caicedo has started adding goals to his game at the best possible moment for Lazio, who have the wind in their sails as they look to close the gap to the Milan clubs.
A trip to Fiorentina comes next for the Aquile and if the ‘Panther’ can continue his run against a team lurking just five points behind Inzaghi’s side, the memory of that day in Crotone will become foggier and foggier in the memories of the fans.
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