Immobile leading Lazio's title challenge to prove he belongs among football's elite

Before football went into lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, a former Borussia Dortmund striker was on top of the standings in the race for the European Golden Shoe. No, it wasn't Robert Lewandowski; it was the man who failed dismally when brought in to replace him: Lazio's Ciro Immobile (stream Lazio vs. Fiorentina live on ESPN+, Saturday, 3.30 p.m. ET).

Last weekend, Lewandowski scored his 33rd Bundesliga goal of the season -- eight of which have come since German football restarted in May -- but Immobile had gone into the stoppage on 27, a tally superior to any other player on the continent.

His equaliser from the penalty spot on Lazio's crucial come-from-behind 2-1 win over Fiorentina brought him to 28. He is eight behind the all-time Serie A scoring record (36) for a single campaign, which was set by Gonzalo Higuain at Napoli four seasons ago, and has 12 matches remaining to beat it.

Immobile's extraordinary scoring season has helped fire Lazio, whose defeat to Atalanta on Tuesday was their first since Sept. 25, towards a title challenge that few people saw coming at the beginning of the season. The capital club sit four points behind leaders Juventus at the time writing, who they are due to face on July 20 -- five matches before the end of the campaign.

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For Immobile, title success would represent an opportunity to show he belongs among the elite after a career that, as his name suggests, has been anything but a standstill.

The 30-year-old started his career with Juventus in 2009, but made just three Serie A appearances before joining Genoa in 2012. It was his move to Torino a year later, though, when he first came to the world's attention. Immobile was the Capocannoniere [top goalscorer] in the 2013-14 campaign with 22 goals, which earned him his big move to Dortmund, but just three Bundesliga goals saw him loaned out to Europa League holders Sevilla 12 months later. He blamed his failure on a lack of tactical advice from then-boss Jurgen Klopp.

"There was little on tactics, little on gym work," he told El Pais about his time at Dortmund following his switch to Sevilla. "We worked hard in preseason but not very much on weekdays. Everything was geared towards endurance. [Klopp] did a lot on motivation to get the best out of his players, but at a tactical level we did not work hard. He's a good coach, though; you do not get to a Champions League final by chance."

Immobile's comments infuriated BVB director Michael Zorc, who told kicker they made him "want to puke" before advising the Italian: "Instead of criticising teammates, coach and club, a little more self-criticism would be appropriate."

Sevilla would go on to win the Europa League for a third straight season, but Immobile was not part of it as his loan stint lasted just six months. After just two goals in eight appearances, he was sent back to Torino. This time it was manager Unai Emery's fault.

"I felt bad, I didn't have many chances," Immobile said on Instagram in April this year. "In January I thought of leaving but Emery asked me to stay. At first I went out and scored two goals straight away, but then Emery took me out again and I thought, 'This guy didn't understand anything.' Let's just say that when you don't feel like part of a group, everything is useless."

In 2016, he joined Lazio and reacted by posting his best-ever tally of 23 league goals. A season later, he improved again as Lazio came within five minutes of reaching the Champions League for the first time in a decade, but missed out due to a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat to Inter on the final day of the season, and he finished joint-leading scorer with Inter's Mauro Icardi on 29 goals.

Former Italy forward Fabrizio Ravanelli, who won league titles with Juventus and Lazio, says that Serie A clubs have simply played to Immobile's strengths.

"[Immobile] was unlucky that, when he played abroad, he wasn't able to showcase himself as he has at Lazio and at Torino," Ravanelli told ESPN. "When he has a time which plays for him, he has been able to show what a top player he is."

One of the major criticisms of Immobile was his failure to reproduce his club form on the international stage. He went more than two years without an international goal from 2017 to 2019 and was the poster boy of Italy's failure to reach the 2018 World Cup following a string of missed chances in both legs of the 1-0 playoff defeat to Sweden.

However, Ravanelli believes this season has provided Immobile with the opportunity to prove he belongs among the world's elite.

"He had these difficult spells in Spain and Germany," Ravanelli added. "When a player doesn't have that rhythm of regularly scoring goals, it will always draw criticism. However, now he is doing so well and he has the chance with the end the of the season and the Euros to show he is a top player at international level. Now it's up to him to show that even the top sides can count on him."

Immobile's happiness at playing for a Lazio side built to his strengths is palpable. He has assist-king Luis Alberto feeding him; the pair have combined directly for five goals this campaign and Immobile having scored four of them. During an Instagram Live in February, the Italy forward joked: "Luis Alberto knows me better than my wife."

Immobile embodies Lazio's spirit. Much like Napoli in 2017-18, when they sensed a title challenge, Lazio effectively sacrificed all other competitions to focus on the league. The Biancocelesti were eliminated in the Europa League group stage and at the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia, with Immobile contributing just two goals in Europe and none in the cup. His energy is spent totally on Serie A and ending the 20 year-wait for a league title.

Simone Inzaghi's Lazio side do not have the star quality of their title-winning counterparts of 20 years ago, but with Immobile firing, they have the chance to end Juventus' eight-year stronghold on the Serie A title. And for Immobile, that really would be the success on the big stage he has deserved.