Juventus are champions of Italy. On Saturday they were playing at the Allianz Stadium, where they hadn’t lost in more than two years in all competitions - an unbeaten streak of 57 games. Their opponents were Lazio, who last beat the Old Lady in Turin 15 years ago when manager Simone Inzaghi was still a player.
One of the greatest compliments you can pay an opponent is changing the way you play because of them. And that’s what Massimiliano Allegri did. It was a show of respect to a Lazio team who had upset Juventus in the Super Cup in August. Instead of lining his side up in a 4-2-3-1 with a No.10 behind Gonzalo Higuain, Allegri settled on a 4-3-3 with a man in front of the defence.
The decision was not exclusively tactical. Allegri was without Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio. His options were limited in midfield. He presumably did not feel comfortable combining Blaise Matuidi with Sami Khedira in a tandem. The pair had barely played half an hour together all season and so Allegri added the promising young Uruguayan Rodrigo Bentancur into the mix. Paulo Dybala’s place on the bench was put down to his involvement with Argentina. But Dybala didn’t play a minute of their qualifiers against Peru and Ecuador. Bentancur on the other hand started and finished both of Uruguay’s games in the international break.
It’s clear Allegri needed him for a specific role. That role was to screen Lazio’s playmaker Luis Alberto. The same Luis Alberto who flopped at Liverpool. Let’s just reflect on that for a moment. A team that made the Champions League final twice in the last three years decided to adapt, in part out of circumstance, but also in part because of the reputation Alberto has built for himself this season. And guess what? Juventus couldn’t stop him: it was Alberto’s quick one-two with Ciro Immobile that started Lazio’s second-half comeback, culminating in their first win at Juventus since 2002.
The undisputed revelation of the season in Serie A, the blossoming of the 25-year-old comes as a surprise even to Lazio fans. Lazio signed Alberto on deadline day last year, supposedly as a replacement for the departed Antonio Candreva. Any deal done last minute usually falls into two categories: a panic buy or a punt. But Lazio insist they’d been tracking Alberto for some time.
The story goes he caught the Eagles’ eye while on a scouting mission in La Coruña. Alberto was not the reason Lazio sent a man to the Riazor. Their interest was in Lucas Perez, who later signed for Arsenal. Come the end of the game, though, Lazio’s talent-spotter liked what he saw from another player. That player, believe it or not, was Luis Alberto. At £3.6m, Lazio didn’t see the Spaniard as a big risk. It was a gamble they could afford to make.
Flash forward a year and it didn’t look to have paid off. Alberto had made just four starts in the league and hardly featured in Lazio’s run to the Coppa Italia final. He confessed to giving serious thought to quitting the game altogether in February. You felt a degree of sympathy for him. In the first place, he didn’t seem over the moon about joining Lazio.
“I didn’t know anything about it until deadline day,” Alberto said at his unveiling. “Staying another year with Liverpool, seeing out the final year of my contract was all that was on my mind. I wanted to give the manager something to think about. Maybe I would have then left for free. In the end Lazio came in for me, right at the last minute, and I didn’t think too much about it. I chose to come here to avoid being ‘unemployed’ for a year.”
Arriving late meant Alberto missed pre-season. He was unfit and had to play catch-up, which is never ideal when moving to a new country with a different football culture. Nor was being presented as Candreva’s successor. Alberto is not a winger and, besides, Lazio could count on Keita Balde Diao and Felipe Anderson in that position.
As for midfield, it was going to take something very special indeed for Alberto to unseat Lazio’s captain Lucas Biglia, a World Cup and Copa America finalist with Argentina, and the Under-20 World Cup winner Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, renowned as the closest Serie A has to Paul Pogba since the Frenchman’s return to Manchester United.
It was hard to take for Alberto. At Depor he had enjoyed his best top-flight season. Perez and Alberto combined for 23 goals and 17 assists. Depressingly he found himself in the same position at Lazio as at Liverpool. But everything changed when Alberto enlisted the help of a sports psychologist Juan Carlos Campillo. They’d been in touch before, over Skype, when he was at Liverpool, working on concentration and relaxation. This time Campillo found Alberto “close to retirement.”
“He didn’t think he had what it takes to make it as a footballer. He thought he wasn’t good enough. It’s quite common. When you see everything in a negative light, you convince yourself you no longer know how to do what you know how to do. The hard part is getting you to understand, you can reach your objective.” Campillo said Alberto needed to “free his mind.” Gradually he has done.
Towards the end of last season, Inzaghi claimed Alberto was making him feel bad because he couldn’t always give him the chances his performances in training deserved. At Formello, his teammates could see his ability. They nicknamed him il Mago - The Magician. While Alberto started the final two games of last season - a target established by Campillo in March - no one foresaw the impact he would have on Lazio this season. When Biglia moved to Milan in the summer, Inzaghi experimented with Alberto as the team’s deep-lying playmaker. The signing of Alberto’s former Liverpool teammates Lucas Leiva meant he switched position again - this time to the No.10 role in a 3-4-2-1. Inzaghi has gone from being unable to find room for Alberto to being unable to leave him out.
Not just a flash in the pan, he keeps surprising. Lazio twice fell behind to Vitesse but came back to win 3-2 with Alberto playing three different positions to great effect. Trailing to Sassuolo, he scored a remarkable free-kick and inspired a 6-1 win, setting up another goal for Stefan de Vrij from a corner, starting the move for Lazio’s fourth and netting again by dribbling past the goalkeeper.
Alberto is currently in a state of grace and hopeful of following the same path as Suso into the Spain squad before next summer’s World Cup. A fellow former Red, Suso started to fulfil his potential at Milan, becoming a major difference maker for the Rossoneri in the last 18 months. Not for the first time he scored in the Derby della Madonnina at the weekend and changed the game in the second half.
“We’ve seen Julen Lopetegui has no fear in giving players a chance who have never worn the shirt before. I know I can do it by continuing to work hard.” The competition is fierce but on this form Lopetegui would be well advised to give Alberto a look.
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