I’ve got a white one at home. I was missing a yellow one,” Ciro Immobile laughed.
At this rate, the Lazio striker will need a new mantelpiece. Immobile already came home with the match ball in September when he put a hat trick past Milan. Last weekend in Ferrara, the 27-year-old went one better. SPAL just couldn’t cope with him. Four of Lazio’s five goals were signed “Immobile” and the smile on his manager’s face was as wide as the Grande Raccordo Anulare is long. If the win and the performance weren’t already pleasing enough to Simone Inzaghi, he also got to reminisce about the time he scored four in a Champions League game for Lazio against Marseille. Grazie Ciro!
La vita e bella for Immobile at the moment. Life is beautiful. And not just because Italy’s blonde No. 9 is currently spending the winter break in the Maldives. Top of the scoring charts in Serie A, he is the first Lazio striker since Giuseppe Signori to score 20 league goals in back-to-back years. Immobile is already on 20 goals this season with 18 games still to play. He was the first player in Europe’s top five leagues to reach that landmark and all of a sudden, the Serie A record Gonzalo Higuain established two years ago (36) looks as if it might be under threat. A record previous holder, Gunnar Nordahl, held since 1950.
Over the course of a career full of ups and downs, Immobile is currently on a high. And the highest high at that. Hitherto he had alternated prolific seasons at Pescara (28) and Torino (22) then another at the Olimpico last year (23) with disappointing ones in Genoa (5), Dortmund (3) and Sevilla (2). It’s been feast or famine. Nothing in between. And it made Immobile difficult to judge. Inconsistent insofar as he never backed up one good season with another until this season, his career arc has sure left a lot of questions? Less about the peaks. More about the troughs.
At Genoa, a tumble dryer of a club, he went through three managers in the space of a year. And Immobile, bless him, could never quite figure out why after the season he had with Pescara, one of his teammates (Marco Verratti) got a move to PSG, another was re-signed by Napoli (Lorenzo Insigne) and yet he somehow ended up at Marassi. This was back in 2012. Parent club Juventus had just turned champions of Italy again for the first time since Calciopoli and while obviously entrusting their attack to the second division top scorer was a big ask, it’s also true that their top scorer that year was Alessandro Matri with just 10 and Arturo Vidal the following year, again with just 10.
Of course, in paying €4 million to co-own Immobile it was Genoa who got the final say on where he landed, and this is where you feel for him. The turbulence he found riding the Griffin made it hard for him to make that instant adjustment to a higher level and replicate the goalscoring exploits he pulled in Pescara. Come as they did under a kamikaze coach like Zdenek Zeman, who never gave any consideration to defending, the suspicion also remained that you couldn’t expect the same production from Immobile in normal circumstances. Immobile went on to disprove that at Torino with whom he won his first Serie A goalscoring crown, joining the likes of Paolo Rossi, Igor Protti, Dario Hubner, Luca Toni, and Alessandro Del Piero in an exclusive club of players who can say they have been Capocannoniere in Italy’s first and second divisions.
At this point Juventus could have pushed to have Immobile again. However, he was by now a firm fan favourite with the Old Lady’s crosstown rivals. Immobile couldn’t betray them and had he even been up for it in the first place La Signora would have spurned him anyway. She was in love with another man; Carlos Tevez. That lady has always had a thing for Argentines. Besides Dortmund made the first move, a team you may recall that had captured the continent’s imagination under Jurgen Klopp in a way Juventus were still yet to do, at least, that is, in the period between 2011 and 2014. They had played in a Champions League final just a year earlier.
Immobile jumped at the offer and why wouldn’t he? Dortmund were paying him quite the compliment in considering this boy from Torre Annunziata a worthy replacement for the departing Robert Lewandowski. And, in hindsight, maybe this is part of the problem with Immobile’s wider image. At the time and still to this day he is judged by that experience. People hold it against him. They view Immobile as the guy who was not Lewandowski. By failing to fill his boots there, he is considered not in the same class. Which is fair. Few centre-forwards are. Evidently Immobile’s not at the Pole’s level. But nor is he a bad striker. Obviously, adaptation was a major problem. The language barrier too big a hurdle. He found the people “cold”, lamenting that “in eight months here no one invited me out to dinner.” For all the criticism levelled at him, it’s also true that no one had a good season at Dortmund in what was a transition year. The Klopp era had run its course at the Westfalenstadion.
Sevilla certainly weren’t put off, which is significant for one reason in particular. A talent evaluator as feted as Monchi clearly recognised Immobile’s talent. Within six months though he was back in Italy. Back at Torino, this time on loan, hoping to rediscover the form that attracted such high-profile interest in the first place only for it to elude him. An injury and the sudden emergence of Andrea Belotti as a goal machine meant that, as much as the supporters love Immobile in the Curva Maratona, they’d moved on and maybe he should too. Again. In the end Lazio acquired him for €9.4m, just half of what Dortmund paid two years earlier. It reflected how much his stock had fallen. It also represented an absolute bargain. Just look at the numbers. In 54 league games for the Biancocelesti, Immobile has been involved in 53 goals.
At 27 he has matured. Now one of Lazio’s captains, the responsibility seems to have inspired him. Naturally it also helps having a former striker as a mentor. Inzaghi knows exactly what makes Immobile tick. He understands the service he needs. “I’ve run out of adjectives for him,” Inzaghi said last weekend. “But Ciro also has a team behind him that does a good job of getting the best out of him.” It’s why Lazio have Serie A’s best attack. Inzaghi has Lucas Leiva who can spot a run from deep and, most crucially of all, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto positioned high up the pitch, close to Immobile. One will attract offers in excess of €100m in the summer. The other is the revelation of this season in Serie A. Both have the vision and the creativity to put the ball exactly where Immobile wants it and the striker just can’t stop scoring, no matter the opponent.
Immobile scored a brace in the Super Cup win against Juventus in August and another doppietta at the Allianz Stadium in the league, as Lazio ended a 15-year wait to beat the Bianconeri in Turin. He has 26 in all competitions. Often compared with his coach, Simone keeps telling journalists they’ve got the wrong Inzaghi. “He’s like Pippo.” This is more a projection of what he wants Immobile to become rather than what he is today. And, with that in mind, it was interesting to hear Immobile explain what he has been working on in training this season. “Deflections in the box. Unexpected goals.” Being in the right place at the right time just like Pippo was when he was a player. Right now, it’s one of the reasons Lazio look a better bet to finish third than Inter or Roma do.
The Eagles are Champions League bound, which people forget is a competition Immobile actually did very well in for Dortmund. Get the almanacs out. He scored four in five Champions League starts for BVB. Maybe next season he really will imitate his manager and do that in a single game in that competition. Now wouldn’t that be something.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.