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Lazio vs Inter Milan: Which team will prove to be the real "anti-Juve" of 2019/20?

Lazio vs Inter Milan: Which team will prove to be the real "anti-Juve" of 2019/20?

Third vs first, Conte vs Inzaghi, Immobile vs Lukaku - there's an awful lot on the line this weekend.

FOR much of the past eight years, the Italian press has been seeking “the anti-Juve.” That has been and remains their preferred term for a title challenger, a team who can emerge from the chasing pack to create a genuine title race against a side who has won Lo Scudetto every year since 2012.

AC Milan, Napoli and Roma have each been hailed as the ones to do so, but each time they have fallen short as the Bianconeri have comfortably retained the league title season after season. This term is very different however, a quick glance at the league table showing Inter level with Juventus in first place and Lazio just one point behind in third.

That they go head-to-head this weekend makes for a hugely intriguing clash, particularly as they share a number of common traits. Both former players and Italy internationals, Antonio Conte and Simone Inzaghi, each favour a three-man defence, but the two clubs are perhaps best represented by their leading goal scorers.

Romelu Lukaku has undoubtedly enjoyed his move to Serie A, instantly returning to the devastating form that appeared lost during recent times at Old Trafford, his 17 goals in 23 league games this season seeing him look more like the deadly striker Manchester United were willing to pay £75 million for back in 2017.

He has ripped through Italian defences in the same manner he used to toy with backlines in England, few players – if indeed any – equipped to deal with the Belgian’s combination of speed and physicality.

“I heard people say Lukaku was a donkey and it’s easy to speak highly of Lukaku now, but if we look back to a few weeks ago…” Conte told reporters recently. “I always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed work to smooth him out, I wanted him when I was at Chelsea, even back at Juventus. I wanted him, now I can get to work on polishing the diamond.”

There is no shortage of mutual admiration between the two either, Lukaku admitting his admiration for the “strong leadership and experience” his coach brings. Yet perhaps none of this would be possible without the work of Inter’s medical staff, who quickly spotted a problem with the player during routine tests.

"Normally I have a fine digestive system, I digest everything very quickly, that’s how it had been my entire life,” Lukaku told ESPN’s Bruce Schoenfeld back in September. “But what the nutritionist said to me was that it had stopped working.”

To correct it, he was given a specially tailored diet that limited him mainly to fish, sweet potatoes, shiitake pasta, and cooked and raw vegetables, believing that he lost 10 pounds in just 12 days. On the pitch, the transformation has been equally staggering, Lukaku’s partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing them into first place as the Argentinian – who managed just six goals last season – has already weighed in with another eleven this term.

Meanwhile, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile has arguably been even more impressive. The Italian was Serie A’s leading goal scorer back in 2013/14 with 22 goals for Torino, the same season where Lukaku joined Everton after exploding during a loan spell with West Brom.

But while Goodison Park saw the best of their new star man over the following three years, Immobile struggled following a big money move of his own. Borussia Dortmund paid around €20 million for him but saw a return of just three league goals, while an unhappy spell at Sevilla saw him score twice in eight La Liga appearances.

A brief return to Torino failed to become a permanent switch, allowing Lazio to snap him up in the summer of 2017 for just €8.75 million. There was no metabolic issue behind his slump, but back in Italy, Immobile soon returned to his previous form, bagging 23 goals in his first season and 29 a year later to win top scorer honours once again.

He would add 15 last term before starting the current campaign on an absolutely remarkable tear. The 29-year-old arrives at this weekend’s fixture having already struck 25 times in just 23 league outings, also weighing in with six assists for good measure. Immobile’s form means he has bagged 123 Serie A goals, the highest tally of any player over the past ten years, an accomplishment that looks even more astonishing when remembering that he took time away for those ill-fated spells in Spain and Germany.

The last time a player managed so many goals after 23 rounds of action was Valentin Angelillo back in 1959, while Immobile also leads the race for the European Golden Shoe ahead of Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski and RB Leipzig's Timo Werner.

"We talk about the Champions League in the dressing room," Immobile told Sky Italia after last weekend’s win over SPAL. "We have to keep our feet on the ground and give the fans some fun. We're happy.”

The Biancocelesti have not taken part in UEFA’s elite competition since 2007/08 but, if Immobile can help them to beat Lukaku’s Inter this weekend, perhaps it won’t be the Champions League he is discussing. Instead it will be Lazio’s emergence as the real “anti-Juve.”







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Adam Digby
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