Lazio supporters have become accustomed to seeing their stars linked with Europe’s wealthiest sides. Owner Claudio Lotito strikes a hard bargain, though, and as a result the club has tended to either keep their big players at the Stadio Olimpico or sell them for an inflated fee.
The departure of waning club icon Hernanes to Inter for a hefty £13.5m in January 2014 is a case in point, given his erratic form ever since. Even Manchester United and Real Madrid, in possession of two of football's largest chequebooks, were repelled in their advances for Stefan de Vrij, Felipe Anderson and Lucas Biglia last summer.
In this context, Liverpool’s pursuit of Antonio Candreva – arguably Lazio’s most prized asset – might seem like a thankless task. However, a difficult campaign for the winger and his club has left the Italian disgruntled, with the tight-fisted Lotito perhaps tempted to cash in on the 28-year-old.
A rough ride
Candreva’s name is hardly a new addition to the gossip columns: the Italy international has been was linked with a number of clubs in England, Spain and Italy after a prolific season with a free-scoring Lazio side last season.
It hasn’t always been so easy for ‘Toto’, however. He arrived in Rome in January 2012 as something of a rough diamond – his talent had never been in question, but he’d struggled to achieve consistency in spells at Parma, Livorno, Juventus, Cesena and Udinese.
Not only was he unproven, but he arrived to accusations of being a childhood Roma supporter – a serious crime in his new surroundings. Candreva was booed on his debut and insulted by fans at his first training session. “I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I thought to myself ‘Antonio, you have to leave’,” he admitted to Roman newspaper Il Messaggero.
But the esteem in which he is now held by Lazio’s demanding fanbase is perhaps the greatest testament to the level of his performances in a Biancocelesti shirt.
Candreva has scored 41 goals and recorded 44 assists in 177 appearances for the club, helping them Lazio to a historic Coppa Italia final win over Roma in 2013, and to third place in Serie A last season. He was unplayable at times in 2014/15, finishing the campaign with 11 goals, 15 assists and Lazio’s first Champions League qualification in seven years.
Things seemed bright for Candreva in Rome, but dark clouds have descended since that high point last May.
Should the Italian leave in the summer, one particular decision can be held up as hugely influential to the separation. With Stefano Mauri and Cristian Ledesma leaving Rome last summer (Mauri later returned), Lazio needed a new captain.
Candreva had previously spoken publicly about wanting to become a flag-bearer for the team, a leader who represents the values of the club on and off the pitch, and the supporters gave them his backing. In what was a remarkable turnaround from his initial reception three-and-a-half years earlier, 57% of readers on fan-run website LaLazioSiamoNoi chose him as their favoured option.
His major competition came from from then-20-year-old Danilo Cataldi (18%) and veteran striker Miroslav Klose (10%). Instead, the club decided to hand the armband to Lucas Biglia, a player who had been at the club for just two seasons and only impressed in one.
Captain Biglia bends one in
It was a clear example of transfer politics: the Argentina international was being courted by Real Madrid and Manchester United at the time, and Lotito was desperate to hang on to him. As a result, the club shunned the fans’ choice, leading Candreva’s agent Federico Pastorello to tell Corriere dello Sport that the winger had “taken it badly” and that “he deserved recognition”.
Threateningly, Pastorello then added: “Every summer, there are four or five clubs that ask for Candreva, even important clubs playing in the Champions League.”
Light in the tunnel
Things have got even worse for the 28-year-old since, with Lazio knocked out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage, exiting the Coppa Italia to Juventus and underperforming in Serie A, where they currently occupy ninth place.
To make matters worse, the Stadio Olimpico has spent the season relatively deserted due to a fan boycott about the decision to place safety barriers directly through their spiritual home, the Curva Nord.
The worse Lazio’s performances have become, the more coach Stefano Pioli has relied on Candreva to pull something magical out of the hat. Only Marco Parolo has started more matches, and although Candreva has six league goals to his name, half of them have been penalties. His contribution of three assists this term has been a significant downturn from last year.
He was linked with Inter in January, agent Pastorello again opened the door to an exit, telling Il Messaggero: “It’s possible his cycle with Lazio could end and that he could ask to leave at the end of the season.”
Liverpool can therefore be reasonably confident of convincing the Italian to move to Anfield, but they’ll still have to penetrate Lotito’s blockade: the president has slapped a £27m price tag on the winger. Given the downturn in Candreva’s displays, Reds fans may begin to question the wisdom of splashing out such a sum.
In fairness to Candreva, though, his assist tally has suffered by virtue of Lazio’s strikers being extremely ineffective: Klose, Alessandro Matri and Filip Djordjevic have just 11 goals between them in 67 appearances in 2015/16.
He also has experience on both the international and European stages, albeit without having played too often in the Champions League. Candreva is technical, quick and strong, while his versatility allows him to play as a No.10 or in a midfield three for Italy. He’s also dangerous from free-kicks and one of Serie A’s best penalty takers, his penchant for Panenka shots underlining his confidence and composure.
A Candreva Panenka
Candreva is almost certain to feature for Antonio Conte’s Italy at Euro 2016 given that he’s appeared in the Azzurri’s last eight matches – and an impressive showing in the tournament could tempt Lazio to raise their asking price further.
Either way, the club look more likely than ever before to consider a reluctant divorce from the man who was once destined to lead them into a bright future. Liverpool might just be a welcoming new partner.
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